THE BLOG
09/12/2013 03:17 pm ET | Updated Nov 12, 2013

The Psychology of Success and Saber-Toothed Tigers

Jon Morrow just started Following me on Twitter! High alert! Where can I hide? What do I do now?!

Now, Jon Morrow is one my heroes, for many reasons. Hugely successful in overcoming ridiculously challenging circumstances. Freely sharing hard-won wisdom on behalf of a better world. Mega-popular. Ginormous following.

Why then, is my first response not, "He's Following me. Oh how fab am I?! How cool is that?!" But rather, "Oh crap, get me outta here. Now."

Under Attack

Why? Because, in part, I experienced a fair amount of trauma as a child.(1) My brain can interpret things as threatening when those things are actually neutral or mundane.

Even fabulous stuff can be perceived as a threat. The emotional response and concomitant thoughts, are fear-based. Not reality-right-now based.

"The neural networks in the brain that are involved in rational, abstract cognition -- essentially, the systems that mediate our most humane and creative thoughts -- are very sensitive to emotional states, especially fear," Dr. Bruce Perry, senior fellow of the ChildTrauma Academy, told Time magazine.

According to Time, "every loud sound suddenly becomes a potential threat, for example, and even mundane circumstances... can take on suspicious and ominous meaning and elicit an extreme, alert-ready response... 'Severe threats to well-being activate hard-wired circuits in the brain and produce responses that help us survive,' explains Joseph LeDoux, professor of psychology and neuroscience at New York University."(2)

Is It Life-Threatening?

Jon Morrow is not a saber-toothed tiger. My increasing visibility and success are not life-threatening situations from which I need to flee.

What to do?

Mindfulness saves my day. (As does creativity. But that's another post, for another time. And mindfulness really helps kick-start creativity, I'm telling you.)

1. Awareness. "You can't get where you want to go if you don't know where you are."(3) It's called mindful awareness because... well, the practice cultivates awareness. For instance: "I'm being Followed. Oh, no!" Wait. That's a fear response. Okay. I am not under attack. Okay. I feel that fear. I don't have to act on it. Okay. Jon Morrow is not a saber-toothed tiger. This is positive. Okay. Next?

2. Choice. When I'm feeling good, on it, I can stop myself from tearing across the savanna, fully freaking out because my reptilian brain believes we're being chased. It's harder when we're tired. But we can still do it. Choose a course of action, using mindful awareness.

3. Responsibility. It is the 21st century. There are no longer literal slathering slobbering beasts chasing most of us. My thoughts are not reality. I have a cerebrum. Use it.

Those of us who have experienced trauma might have to work a little (or a lot) more mindfully to move through fear responses that seem to be completely rational to that hard-working reptilian brain.

The great news is that yes, it is possible. No, you do not have to hide in the corner when someone or something that matters comes knocking on your door.

Yes, indeed. Next?

References:
1 Trauma can be experienced through physical, sexual, emotional, and/or psychospiritual abuse.
2 How Terror Hijacks the Brain, Time.
3 "The Psychology of the Brain.

For more by Melanie Harth, Ph.D., LMHC, click here.

For more on mindfulness, click here.