Watch Your Language

brain stuff Nov 12, 2020

I love me some colorful, dramatic language. Witty banter, sarcasm, dry humor, gallows humor, all of it. What I don't love is how so many people make themselves totally stressed out without even being aware of it, simply because of the language they use to describe things. For example, have you ever noticed how often people, especially women, I'm sorry to say, describe a situation that was inconvenient, frustrating, maybe even somewhat infuriating as "horrific"? Or how about describing running into another woman, who is something along the lines of a frenemy and saying she looked "hideous" simply because she was out in public wearing sweatpants and no makeup? Or my personal favorite, hearing a broken nail crisis referred to as "devastating." 

While this kind of storytelling does tend to draw people in, at least for a minute, it tends to mark you as a Drama Queen and make people start tuning you out as soon as you open your mouth. But, desensitizing your friends to your painful existence is not even the worst part. The more serious issue is that when you talk about your life and your experiences in such amplified terms, it causes your brain to trigger the fight or flight alarm system in your brain. It's kind of like pulling the fire alarm at middle school if you were THAT kid. Suddenly the ceiling sprinklers are dousing everyone with cold water and you are on your way to the principal's office for a suspension, metaphorically speaking. 

Our brains are ever so clever in so many ways, but they are pretty dumb when it comes to those "Is it real or is it Memorex?" scenarios. For those too young to get the reference, it was a magazine ad for super high-quality cassette tapes for recording music, featuring a man sitting in a big, overstuffed leather chair, wearing headphones, his hair flying back as though he was in the front row of a crazy-ass rock concert. For the uninitiated, cassette tapes preceded CDs, which preceded digital downloads. Anyway, apart from that little walk down memory lane, at least my memory lane, the point is that the brain really doesn't know the difference between a genuine threat and an imaginary one. If we are fond of talking about our everyday mishaps and kerfuffles as though they were a 10/10 on the trauma scale, we are going to produce stress chemicals as though it were true. It's also totally possible to get hooked on the attention that comes with being the one who is always having issues, and that has consequences of its own, too. 

We think our life circumstances are the cause of our stress, but I guarantee it, that's not 

the real cause. Our stress is caused by the thoughts we are thinking about those circumstances, especially the ones we label devastating, traumatizing and catastrophic. As soon as those words form in our minds, our brains are generating an appropriate response. If we are under any kind of threat, we will start pumping out cortisol, adrenaline, and epinephrine as though we are being held hostage by a terrorist, only most of the time the terrorist is us. Sometimes, we learned to be overly dramatic from a parent or older sibling who got the attention that way. Sometimes, we are the highly intelligent, hyper-verbal sort that just loves the art of storytelling, even if the only recipient is us. But, most of the time we are completely unaware that we are causing ourselves unnecessary suffering because we are so accustomed to it and are surrounded by others who tend to do the same. 

If you have trouble with anxiety, stress or overwhelm and are willing to entertain a little experiment, I'd love to invite you to consider trying this one. For the next month, whenever something doesn't go your way, or you are inconvenienced, disappointed, shocked or upset in any way, just take a moment to notice the thoughts that come to mind at the moment. Write them down if the circumstances allow. 

Pay attention to any desire you have to share the experience with someone else, whether it is an urge to call your sister or best friend or even just raise your voice or sigh loud enough for a passerby to hear. Check-in with your body and see if your heart rate is elevated, your breathing is rapid and shallow, your mouth is dry, your muscles are tense or your pupils are narrowed. Do your thoughts seem to race and do you feel fear, agitation or excitement? If any of this sounds familiar, you are in the state of fight or flight, caused by your reactions to your circumstances. 

I remember reading once that life is 50% positive and 50% negative experiences. My guess is that most of us think those odds are pretty shitty and we are entitled to something like 70-80% positive. No wonder we get upset so easily if the gap between what we think will happen and what actually happens are so far apart. Maybe the first step to reducing stress is not to take more deep breaths, but to create more realistic expectations. That might certainly help us realize that having a traffic light turn red when we're already late is hardly a shattering experience after all. Now, doesn't your blood pressure feel lower already?

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