When the email came in last week, I was puzzled. I’d received a notice that an Emergency Motion and an Emergency Court Order had been filed in a probate case I’d handled twenty years ago. My thoughts began to spiral:
- I need to file a Motion and Order to Withdraw. UGH! What a hassle!
- Maybe I did something wrong. Maybe that’s what this is about.
- I probably did do something wrong.
- I’d better read the court file and see what is happening. Maybe it’s online. I’ll ask a clerk to help me find it since I don’t practice law any more.
- UGH! They are probably too busy to help me. I’ll have to go downtown. UGH! That’ll take half a day.
- For sure I did something wrong.
- Yes, I absolutely screwed something up.
- OMG! How long is the malpractice statute of limitations?
- What if my malpractice was only recently discovered and the statute of limitations won’t apply?
- What if I get sued and everything is taken away from me?
- Everything will be gone!
- What should I do?
- There’s nothing I can do. I’m screwed.
Within moments, I’d gone from casually checking email to eating government cheese and living in a van down by the river. The Inner Lizard–that part of the brain that is always on high alert, ready to screech urgent warnings—was, as always, preparing me for disaster. It doesn’t care whether we’ve encountered a spider or a shadow, it’s job is to determine that there might be danger and to scream, “MOVE QUICKLY OR YOU WILL DIE!” It doesn’t think critically. It doesn’t care about truth. Its job is to save our lives.
It’s a brilliant system that causes us to needlessly jump out of our skins if there is any possibility that a fuzzy little bunny rustling in the bushes could be a venomous snake. It’s simply trying to keep us safe.
For lawyers, this powerful system tends to go on overdrive, as our training teaches us to intentionally look for what could go wrong in any situation. After years of looking for the worst, we find it easily. But lawyers aren’t the only ones and it doesn’t take special training to over-react like I did.
But here’s the important part of this tale. For the past ten years, I’ve personally applied the principles I now teach others. I don’t automatically believe everything I think, like “I’m screwed, I’m going to lose everything.”
I now know that thoughts like these need to be critically examined if I’m in no immediate physical danger. I’m aware of the signals that my body broadcasts and intervene early with breathing and focusing techniques when I begin to feel the symptoms of fight, flight or freeze. I practice mindfulness techniques regularly so that I’m ready for emergencies like this one.
After a few deep breaths, I was calm and knew I needed more facts. My body is primed to immediately calm down because of my practices.
Then, I simply called the attorney on the paperwork and learned that years before I ever was involved in the case, the decedent sold a piece of property without signing the proper documents. This attorney reopened the case to clear title for the subsequent property owners. She had to notify me because I was attorney of record on the original file. There was nothing for me to do. She got the necessary court order and I would stop getting notices in a few days.
Okay, said the Inner Lizard. Nevermind.
Here’s the important point: my mind-body tools and practices didn’t stop my capacity for catastrophic thinking. But my reactions to those thoughts were significantly different than they use to be.
In the old days, thought spirals like this would trigger high stress, panicky symptoms like a stomach ache, trembling hands, and sleep loss. I might have avoided calling the attorney for a few days, frozen in physiologically triggered fear, and worrying the whole time.
Now, I can think clearly. “Oh, I’m having a bunch of crazy thoughts. What do I need to do? I need to get the facts. What’s the easiest way to do that? Oh, look at the documents more closely and see if there is an attorney I can call. Look, there’s a name, now find her number.” In several minutes, it was over.
Taming the Inner Lizard is not the equivalent of a lobotomy. Your brain will still strive to look for catastrophe, always looking to keep you safe. You may still have spirals of disastrous thoughts.
But with the right tools, your reactivity will be reduced significantly. It takes some time and practice, but it’s so, so worth it.
My Inner Lizard is now warming herself on a rock, her eyes half-closed, just waiting for our next adventure. Meanwhile, I’ll go back to my email, just waiting for the next time to take a few deep breaths.
Next time your thoughts are coming at you as fast as a runaway train, here are a few simple tools that can help:
- Drop your attention into your body by feeling your own weight. Feel the weight of yourself on your chair, of your legs and feet, of your arms and shoulders. Then take three slow, easy breaths, concentrating on a long, slow exhale that is at least as long as the inhale. Exhaling triggers the relaxation response of your nervous system, telling your brain that you are safe.
- Ask yourself which of your thoughts are true. In other words, which are factual and provable, and which are merely thoughts or conclusions without evidence? In the example above, the only thought I had that was factual was the one that said I needed to get more information by calling the attorney who filed the Motion.
- Try my Heartbreathing Meditiation Tool. For a free worksheet and mp3, just drop a note to firstname.lastname@example.org and put the words “heartbreathing” in the subject line.