Ever notice what happens when you get lost in thoughts of worry, fear, or drama? When there is a strong feeling of urgency or threat? You feel a lot of stress. You obsess about the situation as if it is a crisis. You want to know what's going to happen next, or you ruminate about what just happened. Your attention is hyper-focused on the "ordeal" until you resolve the situation or it resolves itself.
Curiously, while this is all going on, what's happening in the other key areas of your life? Hmmm. Not much. And were you ever aware that you were making that decision? Hmmm... Probably not. This is the power of our instincts.
Fear of a perceived threat has a way of stirring us up into a tizzy. It's because of our instincts and it makes sense. If a threat might kill you, you need to pay attention so you will survive. But what if the threat isn't an actual threat? What if it isn't even something you can influence?
Here's the rub about being human: the amygdala (the instinctual part of our brain) doesn't care about accuracy. If our amygdala correctly identifies threat 1 out of 100 times, it did its job. That's good enough. And for the other 99 times, we went on an emotional roller coaster just in case? Well that's a bummer.
In short, our instincts work hard to make sure we get carried away and lose sight of what matters most to us as a kind of "just in case" protection mechanism. And we stressfully fall for it, unless we choose otherwise.
Much of managing our stress is managing our instincts. One technique is being intentional about what matters most. When you feel yourself getting swept away, you can ask, "Does this distract me from what matters most, and am I willing to give up my attention and energy for this possible threat?"
Think of it like a rudder in a choppy sea, or a lighthouse in a storm. Knowing what matters most can give you perspective and keep you heading in a more beneficial direction when your instincts want to take your attention elsewhere.
Here's how to do it. It's pretty straight forward, but you need to actually DO the steps, not just read them.
1. Create a List of What Matters Most
The first step is being intentional about what matters most. While you can ask a generic question (Does this align with what matters most to me?), it's more effective if it's specific. In the stressful moments when your instincts are working overtime to take your attention, you can better see what you are giving up.
"I'm giving up tending to my long-term relationship with my partner because... someone I don't know wrote a mean Tweet and it pissed me off and I want to find them and educate them on how to behave in a civil society?" Maybe not an ideal choice.
2. Notice How You Reacting to Perceived Threat
We each react to perceived threat differently. When you understand the strategies your instincts use on you, and how those make you feel and act, you can better notice when you start to head down that path. It does no good if you can't stop and ask, "Does this crisis align with what matters most to me?" You need to create the space to ask the question, and that takes awareness.
Possible feelings to perceived threat are: helplessness, overwhelm, anger, frustration, outrage, indignation, injustice, etc.
Possible reactions to perceived threat are: obsessing, overthinking, negative thoughts about the past, negative emotions about what if scenarios, being short tempered with others, straying from your normal routine or responsibilities, trying to create justice.
For me, I feel defensive and indulge in overthinking. I have a hard time focusing on anything else. There will be feelings of urgency or impending doom. There will be a desire to prove "I'm right" and others are "wrong" as if my life depends on it - because according to my amygdala, it does.
Choose to Respond, Giving Priority to What Matters Most
Once you notice your instincts are pulling you away, now comes the hard part. You get to decide what you will do about it. It's easy to get carried away. Our instincts give us all the momentum we need. To choose to redirect your focus back to what truly matters takes repeated effort. It is like swimming against the current. With time the strategies your instincts use will be less effective but initially, or when you catch it late, be prepared to put your flippers on and kick hard.
Recognizing that our brains tend to process suggestions as all-or-nothing solutions, it's important to point out that that there are times when the potential threat should be taking seriously. You might think, great, in those times I can just let myself get carried away. Maybe, but ideally not.
Rather than let instincts think for you and act for you, the goal is to consciously decide for yourself. Is this threat real? Does it warrant my attention? And if it does, consciously choose how much and what kind of attention do you give it. Instincts would say give it nearly 100% of emotionally charged (reactive) attention, but consciously you may choose to give it 40% of your critical-thinking attention, and spend the rest on your What Matters Most list.
The way you bypass stress and feel empowered is by managing your instincts. As long as you're building awareness, setting yourself up to make conscious choices while avoiding the drama of your triggered instincts, you're actively managing you. Using What Matters Most is just one approach, but it's not the only one.