Don't Be Alarmed

Practice of the Week
Don't Be Alarmed

Category: Slogans to Live By: Practices for everyone to keep in mind and pay attention to. These practices don't require setting aside a separate substantial chunk of time. Just have the intention to grow stronger in each of these areas as you go about your day, and sometimes make one of them the focus of your daily journaling. The titles of these practices are guiding slogans to live by.
"Whoa. Chill out, dude." (Conronus the Chuggernaut)

The nervous system has been evolving for about 600 million years. During all this time, creatures — worms, crabs, lizards, rats, monkeys, hominids, humans — that were real mellow, watching the sunlight on the leaves, getting all Zen, absorbed in inner peace ... CHOMP got eaten because they didn't notice the shadow overhead or crackle of twigs nearby.

The ones that survived to pass on their genes were fearful and vigilant — and we are their great-great-grand¬children, bred to be afraid. Even though we've come a long way from the Serengeti, we're still quick to feel unsettled in any situation that seems the least bit threatening: not enough time to get through your e-mails, more news of a struggling economy, no call after two days from someone you've started dating, and so on.

Even if the situations you're in are reasonably good, there are other, innate sources of alarm rooted in our biology. Basically, to survive, animals — including us — must continually try to:
  • Separate themselves from the world
  • Stabilize many dynamic systems in the body, mind, relationships, and environment
  • Get rewards and avoid harms
But here's the problem: each of these strategies flies in the face of the facts of existence:
  • Everything is connected to everything else — so it's impossible to fundamentally separate self and world.
  • Everything changes — so it's impossible to keep things stable in the body, mind, relationships, or environment.
  • Rewards are fleeting, costly, or unobtainable, and some harms are inevitable — so it's impossible to hold onto pleasure forever and totally escape pain.
Alarms sound whenever one of these strategies runs into trouble — which is many times a day because of the contradictions between the nature of existence and what we must do to survive. Alarms below awareness create a background of unease, irritability, caution, and pessimism; the ones you're consciously aware of are emotionally and often physically uncomfortable — such as anxiety, anger, or pain.

Don't underestimate the amount of background alarm in your body and mind. It's hard-wired and relentless, inherent in the collision between the needs of life and the realities of existence.

While this alarmism has been a great strategy for keeping creatures alive to pass on their genes, it's not good for your health, well-being, relationships, or ambitions. Threat signals are usually way out of proportion to what is actually happening. They make you pull in your wings and play safe and small, and cling tighter to "us" and fear "them." At the level of groups and nations, our vulnerability to alarm makes us easy to manipulate with fear. Yes, deal with real threats, real harms — but enough with all these false alarms!


Take a stand for yourself: "I'm tired of being needlessly afraid." Consider the price you've paid over the years due to false alarms: the running for cover, the muzzling of self-expression, the abandonment of important longings or aspirations.

Try to be more aware of the subtle sense of alarm, such as a tightening in your chest or face, a sinking feeling in your stomach, a sense of being off balance, or an increase in scanning or guardedness.

Then recognize that many alarm signals are actually not signals at all: they're just unpleasant noise, meaningless, like a car alarm that won't stop blapping. Obviously, deal with real alarms. But as for the ones that are exaggerated or entirely bogus, don't react to these alarms with alarm.

Accept that bad things sometimes happen, there are uncertainties, planes do occasionally crash, nice people get hit by drunk drivers. We just have to live with the fact that we can't dodge all the bullets. When you come to peace with this, you stop trying to control — out of alarm — the things you can't.

Keep helping your body feel less alarmed. I imagine my "inner iguana" lodged in the most ancient and fearful structures of the brainstem, and gently stroking its belly, soothing and settling it so it relaxes like a lizard on a warm rock. The same with my inner rat, or monkey, or caveman: continually softening and opening the body, breathing fully and letting go, sensing strength and resolve inside.

Alarms may clang, but your awareness and intentions are much larger — like the sky dwarfing clouds. In effect, alarms and fears are held in a space of fearlessness. You see this zig-zaggy, up-and-down world clearly — and you are at peace with it. Try to return to this open-hearted fearlessness again and again throughout your day.

For Journaling

Reflect on the phrase "needlessly afraid." Write about some of the needless fears you've had over the years of your life. What price did you pay for having those fears? Sketch a strategy for yourself for letting go of needless fears.

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Rick Hanson on not being alarmed:

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For list of all weekly practices: "Practices of the Week Index"

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