According to the old saying, where the eyes go, the body goes. It turns out the basis for this truth is not only physical, but psychological as well.
I remember a recent motorcycle trip over the Sonora Pass. I had the road to myself and was enjoying the thrill of driving fast through the turns. Coming down the mountain looking out toward Nevada, I glimpsed a long stretch of road ahead. Accelerating out of a turn, I anticipated a clear sweep.
Suddenly I saw a scrap of two by four on the road, directly in my path. My attention fixated on the piece of wood. Panicking, I hit it. Luckily, I didn’t wipe out, but instantly began berating myself for the collision with this obstacle. Perhaps if I had directed my eyes elsewhere, I could have avoided it.
Fixating on the Obstacle
I’ve recently encountered a couple of people with financial challenges that reminded me of this event. In one case, the issue is loss of income, actual loss of income. In the other instance, the person has a solid six-figure income but is worried about losing it though no imminent threat exists. Both people are so focused on their respective issues that they have become stuck. They are looking at the obstacles and can’t see how to get past them.
The Influence of Fear
The common thread is fear. When faced with a threat to one’s wellbeing, whether real or imagined, the body’s automatic response systems kick in with the “fight or flight” reaction. The stress hormones, adrenaline and cortisol, flooding the brain, actually make it more difficult for us to think as the neural pathways to the prefrontal cortex shut down. * We instinctively seek safety. When money is involved, this can be as dangerous as staring at the chunk of wood in the road. We often freeze and do nothing, or our emotions lead us to do the wrong thing.
We may also get down on ourselves for past mistakes, as I did after hitting the piece of wood. “I should have saved more” is a common refrain. Both of these states, the automatic reaction to feeling unsafe, and regret over past choices, serve no purpose other than keeping us paralyzed. We feel there are few options. We can’t see a way out, only the obstacles in our paths.
There are some small but important things we can do to change this dynamic. First, we can be present and acknowledge our feelings. Breathe. A favorite yoga teacher used to say, “If you’re not breathing, you’re not doing yoga.” It works here, too, helping to bring some calmness and perspective to what seems an intractable situation.
Another practice involves appreciating what you have and what is working in your life, from the richness of relationships to the still moment watching a sunset on the back deck. Practicing gratitude really does foster a sense of wellbeing. It may take repeated application, but planting the seeds of feeling better about your situation allows new possibilities to arise. Envision a path around the obstacles you face!
* Harvard Business Review: “Calming Your Brain During Conflict”