Friday, October 4, 2013

The Gratitude Tree

What does a girl do when she's got a week of unexpected downtime?

A craft!

I know what you're thinking, please for-the-love-of-all-that-is-holy no.

Not made by you?

But come ON!

Just because I've never successfully crafted anything in my life doesn't mean I can't!

Well, maybe it does.

Yes, yes, I know you can't tell if that's an owl or a cat, but just because I didn't Google "owl" before free-handing it, don't you see? That's not the point.

It's a neuroscience experiment.

Here's the scoop. I've started going to therapy for some stuff because believe it or not I don't tell you everything.* 

*see word "stuff" for details.

At my first session, one of the therapists talked about the flight, fight, or freeze response, something I'm familiar with because I teach it in my emergency management class.

She drew a loose representation of a brain on the board, and we talked about how life-events are sifted. The amygdala helps to process and store each event as a memory, sorting external stimuli into categories: safe or dangerous.

Hey, look at that! There're trees in my brain!

When we process a dangerous event, we get the fight, flight, or freeze chemicals pumped through us.

Now I've always taught FFF in the most literal way, you know, like, there's a fire/bear/danger and you either run to it, run away from it, or stand there watching.

(FYI, in any given danger ~80% of us just watch, a la the "freeze" response, waiting for direction from higher authority, unless you've specifically trained yourself to act otherwise.)

It's not just the big stuff that gets processed through the amygdala.

Everyday situations and everyday reactions flow through normal sensory inputs and are then also handled by your brain.

It's there to help and protect us.

So if our bodies feel the need for protection, they react quickly through the release of those same FFF chemicals.

For example, let's go with something fairly universal and say there's an irritant in your roommate/marriage situation. For the sake of this example, let's say it's not just a nit-picky thing but something more serious. The irritant (by nature of the word) happens over and over again. Each time you react, your body does it faster and with more... just more.

By the way, if this example doesn't suit you, find something that does -- perhaps your relationship with a child, boss, sibling, parent, coworker, etc. Or something that you fear because of past experiences. Or something that triggers sadness or depression.

This irritant may also trigger an FFF chemical release.

If you react by fighting you might:

  • physically attack, or maybe you blame, yell, accuse, criticize or otherwise verbally attack. 

If you react by flighting (fleeing) you might:

  • turn to any form of escapism--hiding behind work, hobbies, food, books, videogames or addictions (porn, alcohol, sex, drugs, etc.) 

If you freeze, you might cope by:

  • shutting down, becoming emotionally numb, or becoming unable to think enough to problem-solve.

Your brain is excellent at recognizing patterns, and if you have reacted in any of these ways to a situation in the past, it will likely be a recurring theme when faced with that situation (memory pattern) again.

And if you're faced with the same situation again and again and again and AGAIN, your response can get worse -- or at least more automatic. A fight, flight, or freeze response to your everyday surroundings can become both hypersensitive and cyclic.

When your response to a situation is unguarded (meaning the situation is safe or ignorable), you move on.

When your response is guarded (meaning you feel unsafe or require protection) it makes quite an impression in your brain. Literally.

There are physical and emotional responses that come along with fight, flight, or freeze.


Physical responses may include but are not limited to

  • overall muscle tension, tightening of digestive system & circulatory systems, and hemoglobin hanging onto oxygen. 
Emotional responses may include but are not limited to

  • sadness, anxiety, guilt, irritability, worry, disappointment, fear, loneliness, anger, heartache

If any of this sounds like you? Don't worry! 

It's normal. It's human.

However, the combination of these physical and emotional factors, especially in a repeat-reaction environment is a form of stress that can ultimately cause emotional / physical shut-down. Repeatedly stressing the body over time leads to fatigue, fogginess, weariness.

You may feel your energy drain away, in a matter of seconds. 

Shut-down is yet another form of protection. We protect ourselves to survive. And we are designed for survival.

Ever hear anyone say they're in survival-mode? It's an idiom, but for some, it might be true.

Okay, so what does this have to do with the tree on my wall?

I did mention it was therapy, so obviously they're going to try to arm us with solutions. 

The cyclic reactions that have been ingrained and reingrained within us are not easily controlled. And sometimes we cannot control our environment, at least not without drastic change. 

So, the burden of cycle-breaking is still left to us, in the one place we can change. Ourselves.

We talked about proactive emotional responses instead of reactive responses. WAY HARDER than it sounds. But still. You can try.

I'm not gonna explain the first 5 methods they taught us, except to list them: awareness, observation, responsibility language, slow breathing, and self-compassion.

But the last thing, the sixth thing is awesome!

If you tried to insert a non-stressful emotion when a protective emotion is about to pop up, guess what the best emotion is to focus on. 

Guess! Guess!

Did you guess, happy?


Did you guess, strong?


Did you guess, grateful?

Well, you're either very smart or you read the title of my entry.

Or both. I'll give you that.

Ends up that of all the "positive" emotions in the world, the best at breaking the chemical reaction of fight, flight, or freeze is gratitude.

It makes sense. Hundreds of millions of people over millennia have found peace in religion, expressing regular gratitude to their deity/deities. (Well, or at least knowing they should.) I'd surmise that's why focusing on service, meditation, or nature brings quiet. Appreciation & love, they're easily rooted in gratitude.

So, now we have a gratitude tree in our house. To remind us visually and viscerally to be grateful.

It's really a combo of two things we used to do in my home growing up, so major props to my parents, especially my Mom. We had a "thankful box" in November and a "love tree" in February. They looked different, but they were conceptually similar.

Here's my crafty step by step process:
  1. Order something from Amazon that gets shipped in a box stuffed with protective crumpled up brown paper.
  2. Uncrumple it, sorta.
  3. Tape the pieces together.
  4. Draw a tree.
  5. Sorta, kinda cut it out like you drew it.
  6. Stick the tree to something somewhere. (If you're smart, you will end up with the tape and marker lines toward the wall where no one will see them. I am not that smart.)
  7. Buy or make leaves. (I bought mine, $6 of foam leaves. Thank you Walmart.)
  8. Use a marker to write your gratefulness on the leaves.
  9. Put them on the tree.
  10. Remember, it doesn't matter at all what your tree looks like. It's about the gratitude.
We've only just begun, but I figure we'll keep being grateful until all the leaves are gone or we're covered in snow. By then I hope we have a habit of gratitude, both feeling it and expressing it. 

Even after we chop down the tree.

P.S. -- It may have ended in a question mark, but Bridgette came home from school and said, "An owl?"

(Fist pump, yessss!)


Tammy and Alvin said...

Love it! Brings back happy memories of the gratitude paper we had up in the hallway of our freshman dorm and all of the funny things we wrote on there. You have always been a thanksgiving lover. Your tree is perfect!
May we all be blessed to be able to change ourselves and choose better responses. Thanks for sharing the FFF info and the great craft. ;)

ps. I clicked on the picture to enlarge the image and it's definitely an owl.

Lore said...

Your tree reminds me of the apple trees in "The Wizard of Oz," the 1930's, highly acclaimed version, with great, cutting edge special effects! Count yourself among the best!