Three and half years ago, Shabana’s father had suffered a severe cardiac arrest and had immediately passed away. She had to cope with the Grief and the Fear of “Impending Doom”, which suddenly became so real. It started one day when she had a panic attack when she was out of her home. This led to her giving up her job and slowly and gradually shutting herself in.
In the last three years, this Fear had insidiously started colonising and shrinking her sense of worthiness and safety. Shabana and the Fear had become so entangled and fused that Shabana saw it as a core part of her identity. Slowly, that started becoming her single story – “I am afraid”. She had attempted to fight it by reasoning with it, but the more she raged against it, the stronger it clung to her.
It took Shabana and me a little time to deconstruct or “unpack” this Fear. We discussed the places it showed up, what it said to her and how it had impacted her life over the years in terms of her relationships, her work, her self-worth and her dreams.
As a child, she had always dreamed of travelling around the world. This Fear had pounded this passion down with the voice of “Impending Doom”. Giving up on her dream, she had vicariously started surfing the net looking for photos, researching and helping her family and friends plan exciting vacations.
Obviously, this Fear had farmed seeds of hopelessness, worthlessness and helplessness. She saw herself as “a failure”, “a coward” and “a weakling”, who had “taken an easy way out”.
What I saw and heard was an amazingly spirited woman, who had stood up to this Fear in small ways for so many years. I heard about how despite the Fear, she had gone for school trips, stood and won the Head Girl position in her school, got admission in the top design college in the country, excelled there and got an immediate placement with a well-known interior decorator. All this, while living with high-voltage Fear of ‘Impending Doom’!
Shabana had a sharp wit and a wacky sense of humour. When I asked her how she managed to hoodwink Fear and visit me regularly, she told me with a laugh, “I tell myself it is not me, it is the Radio of Impending Doom.”
Together we discussed how the voice of this radio got stronger and seemed more real when she thought that its transmission were her own thoughts. Conversely, if she saw it as just the voice of the radio and not real, it lost its grip over her. Over time, she learned how to be mindful of its voice, be compassionate towards it (“it ain’t going away, so I might as well learn to live with it”), and not feed it by taking it personally. I found the metaphor of the radio that Shabana used really powerful to explain how the reactive brain works. In fact, from now on, at times I will refer to the reactive brain as the Radio of Reactivity as well. This radio is at times silent, at times softly murmuring and many times broadcasting in a loud voice:
I always mess up
Nobody likes me
Something bad is going to happen
The Radio of Reactivity has a trigger or button that switches it on, which we will call Shenpa. Shenpa is a Tibetan word that I heard Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron use and thought that it aptly describes the triggers that set off our Radio of Negativity. When somebody says, “She knows exactly how to push all my buttons”, what they are basically talking about is how the other person triggers their Shenpa that sets them off into a spiral of negativity. I am sure we can all think of three people in our lives who immediately press our Shenpa.
For each person, our triggers or Shenpas could be different. Let’s look at some:
- Past experiences and memories
- Thoughts about the future
- Physical appearance, body image
- Some people or situations
- Comparison with others
- Evaluation – exams, interviews
- Being different
- Critical comments from anybody on the above
Let me explain with an example. Suppose you are at work and one of your colleagues says something that typically gets you riled and pushes your Shenpa, which in turn switches on the Radio of Reactivity setting off the domino effect, “How dare she talk to me like that?” “Who does she think she is?”
Anger flooding in with imminent tightness in your body, heart pounding where you end up saying something rude back to her, or even banging the desk or slamming the door. All reactions you might later regret.
Now let’s play out a different scenario, with the mindful brain taking charge. Let’s play it out as a slow motion movie. This time, as soon as your colleague says something provocative (or what you perceive as provocative), you become aware of the Shenpa rousing itself from sleep. Visualise the Shenpa as a button lying somewhere deep in your gut, very close to the heart. As soon as it is pushed, you feel it as a “tug”, a “tightening” in your gut that is immediately echoed by the heart through a mild flutter as palpitations or pounding when the Shenpa charge is high.
Your mindful brain observes how the Radio of Reactivity tunes in with, “How dare she talk to me like that?”, followed by a rush of anger, tension in the body and the intense need to shout or bang something. Rather than reacting, you take a deep breath, gently telling yourself to stay calm and you see the Shenpa settling down. You smile at your colleague, maybe even reply to her calmly, and then walk away, with a light heart (and mind).
I know it might sound impossible but with regular practice of change the channel, you can actually train your brain to do that.
Excerpted with permission from Reclaim Your Life: Going Beyond Silence, Shame And Stigma In Mental Health, Shelja Sen, Westland.