A Crying Dog

27567602_sA recent camping trip with my dog demonstrated beautifully how our nervous system, fight, flight, anxiety and fear work. And what we might do about it.

Intending to meditate on our peaceful yurt deck, while my husband went to chat with an acquaintance, I leashed our dog (a mini Australian Shepherd) so that she would not follow him. Well, forget meditating. She began a low whine, and whimper, wanting to run and check on him. The only way to quiet her was to call her over and pet her. While my dog cannot run worst case scenarios of what my husband was encountering, which is a distinctly human quality located in the neocortex– our frontal brain, she still was anxious about being separated with him  gone in unfamiliar territory.

We share our limbic system, in the midbrain with dogs, cats and all mammals. Social bonding, emotional capacity, and fight/flight are housed here. The old Lizzard brain in comparison tends to freeze, and perhaps flee and lay low when sensing danger.

We had watched these reactions with amusement the night before. After  walking with our flashlights, we sat watching the stars. Our dog clearly was pulled in two different directions. Feeling afraid she came close to crouch agains our legs. Then she would go and sit behind us, completely alert to guard us, which is her job after all, until the fear took over again.

Back to the meditation session. Suddenly my dog heard something, standing fully alert, ears up, nose working. Growling, barking, she was ready to face the possible threat. It might have been a squirrel or a car driving by. I could stop her barking but nothing could distract her  from her vigilence, until she felt the danger had passed.

Calming our anxious brain requires petting as well. The simple act of patting a child’s back can help it go to sleep. Putting a hand over our heart and speaking to ourselves as if we were a young child (our pet) “there, there, all is well” can begin to calm the nervous system.

We can change our breath from the anxious upper chest breathing, which is likely shallow, to letting our belly balloon out first on the inhale, and exhaling two counts longer than the inhale. This way we are letting the nervous system know that there is currently no danger we need to run from.

Other ways to soothe physically, is to put a finger on our upper lip (suggesting that it is safe enough to eat). Here is another one combining four strategies.

Put both elbows on the table, lean your head into our hands and so that you hold the two bumps above your forehead. This stimulates the logical brain. Leaning forward like this and protecting the belly “down-regulates”, or calms the nervous system. Add a slightly longer out-breath (4 in- 6 out at a comfortable pace) and a soothing statement that appeals to you. Notice the support of your head and allow your body to relax into it, letting jaw and belly become soft. 

Incidentally, counting our breath engages the neocortex and helps us to focus on problem solving. The proverbial “take 10 breaths before you react” works that way. This way we begin to consciously use our thoughtful and imaginative human brain to counteract the run-away inner dialogue or movies about what bad thing could happen, and replace them with more realistic considerations or imaginings. Both a cognitive and a guided imagery approach can help, the first soothing the verbal left brain, the other the creative right brain.

When our thoughts are the mischief makers, we want to catch them as they create imaginary catastrophes. Once we catch them, we can begin to talk to ourselves about what is more likely true, more common, and more mundane. From hindsight we can often see that a mole hill became a mountain while we were anxious. From statistics we see that true danger is much less common than we are convinced is true. But remember the dog: by nature our nervous system is wired to protect us. Our thoughts can make this biological tendency 10 times worse. But they can also counteract it, when we know or learn how.

Finally recognizing that we are using detrimental imagery in the form of “scary movies” we project in our minds, we can use our imagination skillfully. Focusing on images– colors, sounds, smells, touch and activities that are soothing, as well as the right place and weather to be comforting, such as a vacation memory, being with a loving person or petting a cat, will calm the nervous system.

Your inner cat will purr once again, or the dog moan just like us, when we relax.

Photo copyright by Volha Kavalenkava