I found myself ruminating as I walked (more like trudged) the beach this morning. I woke up inexplicably sullen and anxious, and my mind was scrambling around looking for justifications for my dour mood: didn’t sleep well, a family member hurt my feelings, my friend never called me back about dinner, I haven’t written a decent paragraph in a week, I still can’t play B minor on my guitar, I gained a pound after eating nothing but kale and arugula all week, the sunrise was obscured by clouds, and what’s with all this seaweed on my beach?
It was down around Avenida 18 that I nearly stepped on a little treasure in the shore break, one I don’t see every morning. Amidst the broken conchs and whelks and jingles and augers, tangled in that annoying seaweed, I happened upon a starfish.
Rarely do I find them whole—with all five arms intact—and this used to bother me a little. Unlike the uninhabited seashells I love to collect, the starfish (more accurately named “sea stars”) are often alive, and I don’t disturb them. I let them be. But I hate that they are missing appendages. (Ouch!)
Or at least I used to. It would seem, however, they don’t really mind. In fact, they will voluntarily sacrifice an arm or two when threatened by predators. No prob. They’ll just grow a new one. Sea stars are fascinating in their ability to regenerate.
Sometimes to the detriment of their own ecosystems.
On the Great Barrier Reef on the east coast of Australia, a species of sea star, the Crown of Thorns Starfish, has been known to wreak havoc on the coral. During one such outbreak, hundreds of thousands of the creatures raked through the colorful living reef, reducing great swaths of it to bare white bones. “Helpful humans” stepped in to address the problem—gathering up buckets and bucket of the sea stars and chopping them up into tiny pieces, to ensure they were adequately dead. Ha! Turns out, they weren’t. The fragments were thrown back into the sea, where the pieces individually regenerated into whole new sea stars, lots of them, greatly exacerbating the problem.
Greatly exacerbating the problem…hmmm. I do this all the time. I was doing it this morning—to the detriment of my own emotional ecosystem. Bad moods are sticky. They attract all manner of negativity if I let them. I take one uncomfortable emotion—in this case crankiness over a few sleepless nights—and attempt to legitimize it artificially. I start ruminating, over-thinking, and dissecting my glum mood. I chop it up into a dozen pieces, labeling each one with some perceived injustice or fault. I throw it all back out there, and each little slight takes on a life of its own, and soon I’m swimming in pure negativity—all the color and vibrancy bleached out of my life. I’m a big ole walking bummer.
My husband does this too—only his Crown of Thorns (starfish) manifests as anger. Something happens to put him in a “mood,” often something legitimately troubling, like dishonesty, carelessness, or hypocrisy, and his frustration over not being able to correct the dishonest, careless or hypocritical, makes him feel out of control. Feeling out of control is intolerable to him—and since he knows logically and rationally, that it is not nor will ever be in his power to control other adult humans, he unconsciously has to make it about something else—or everything else: the woman texting at the stoplight, the delay on repairs being done on the boat, the overwhelming mess in the garage, even the wife who may (or may not) talk too much about matters of the psyche. Ha! He may not be able to control any of these things either, but at least his ire is “justified.”
There’s actually a psychological term for this, the refractory period, when after a troubling emotion arises, we’re only able to relate to information that confirms what we’re already feeling. For me, anxiety begets anxiety. For Ted, anger begets anger.
And it seems to all boil down to fear. Anxiety is apprehension—fear of some future trouble. Anger is more cleverly disguised. It presents itself energetically, righteously, even piously. But from an evolutionary perspective, anger has always been the primitive brain’s way of telling us that we are under threat, and something needs to change. We are afraid of something.
And admitting to yourself that you are scared—when clearly there are no literal saber-toothed tigers threatening you—is hard, especially, I think, for men in our society. Don’t we all want to be seen as courageous and strong, or at least functional? So, telling anyone, even your own sweet self, that you are afraid, puts you in a very vulnerable spot.
Which is exactly where you need to be, early on, when that first disconcerting emotion rears its ugly head. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of here?” (Not, who done me wrong, or why am I such a loser?)
The answer will not be impolite drivers, or unreturned texts, or the inability to play bar chords on my guitar. And it will not be a saber-toothed tiger, either. It will probably be something ego-related and non-life-threatening. But my sympathetic nervous system doesn’t know that, and it pumps out all those fight or flight hormones (cortisol, epinephrine and noradrenaline, to name a few) to protect me from the jungle beast that wants to eat me.
Our bodies, from a survival-of-the-fittest perspective, are designed to move in response to threat—whether it’s fighting or flighting, movement is implicit. But what we more often do in modern life when irked, is brood (in the case of anxiety) or fume (in the case of anger). Those stress hormones that would have been burnt off by fleeing for my life on the Serengeti, simply marinate and propagate when I slouch on the couch binge-watching Dexter. Physical exercise is what our primitive brains have always prompted our bodies to do when threatened. There is a biological reason I always feel more emotionally balanced after an aerobic workout.
Our brains are designed to solve problems—which, ironically, is what makes brooding and fuming seem so useful. We think we can think our way out of a funk, and perhaps we could if our egos weren’t so damn good at “protecting” us from blame. If I am not to blame, then what is, or (even worse) who is?
The blame game is chopping up starfish and throwing the pieces out into my sea, where they regenerate and suck all the color and vitality out of my reef, my life. A better way occurs to me: Give my brain something useful or creative to solve, something that requires focus and intent. Write a letter to a friend, practice my guitar, finally read the last 200 pages of the Goldfinch.
Steven Covey wrote: “In the space between stimulus (what happens) and how we respond, lies our freedom to choose.” It may be a very small window between that primary emotion—that fear—and my next thought or action, but I do get to choose. Over and over again, I get to choose.
And practice makes perfect—the actions and thoughts I habitually engage are the ones that become “easier” over time. Neural pathways are being forged. Patterns are becoming entrenched. But which patterns?
Recognizing my fear—whether it manifests as anxiety, anger, or any other uncomfortable emotion—is job one for me. Accepting it is job two (and perhaps talk about it with someone I trust).
And job three—Let it be. Leave it there on the shore.
Move energetically away, and onto something worthy of my brain power.
This story perhaps.
“Vices” is now available on Kindle and other eReaders for just 5.99. You even have the option of “gifting” the digital version by clicking the “Give as a Gift” on Amazon.com and entering the email address of the recipient. Of course, the paper version (still my preference) is available at the buy-three-get-one-free rate from this website (Shop).
Books are also available from all these gracious local retailers:
At the beach:
69 Via DeLuna Dr.
Pensacola Beach, FL 32561
In Gulf Breeze:
832 Gulf Breeze Parkway
(Publix shopping center)
Gulf Breeze, FL 32561
In East Hill:
1208 N. 12th Ave.
Pensacola, FL 32503
(at the front register)
5109 Bayou Blvd.
Pensacola, FL 32503
89 Central Square
Santa Rosa Beach, FL 32549
Page and Palette
32 S. Secton Street
Fairhope, AL 36532