Feeling Frustrated, Get Curious.

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Let me set the scene: Pure panic. Crying, screaming, and a piercing gaze called for help. As I stood there, I wasn’t sure what to do. I leapt into action, trying to figure out what the problem was and how to help. It was chaos—until it was over.

A jingle of the car keys, and those eyes moved from panic to intrigue. The crying stopped, and the panic receded. And within seconds, a smile came across my little girl’s face. Welcome to the life of a parent with a baby, where you can move from joy to panic, or from a meltdown to laughing, in an instant. Babies are masters at changing states. But there’s a lesson in here for the rest of us. While our states might not be as dramatic, we, too, get locked in periods of rumination and catastrophizing. We get stuck in inaction, unable to summon the energy to get going. We even get stuck in fits of rage.

According to neuroscientist Jak Panksepp, we have a number of emotion circuits that correspond to such experiences. Panksepp named seven: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, GRIEF, and PLAY.

In the aforementioned example, my baby girl went from a state where fear and rage were dominating, to one where seeking and play took center stage, and all thanks to a little help from car keys. Now, those keys don’t always work. Sometimes, it’s a silly sound, a crazy dance, moving outside to change the environment, or going to find the dog to entertain her. But the key is that we use something to shift her focus and, in turn, her emotional state. The toy or dog invites curiosity and exploration, which is the opposite of the narrowing that stress often pushes us towards.

It’s not too different from a runner who starts to feel down on herself in the midst of a race as her goal slips away. Grief and fear might start to take over. But shifting her goal and attention—from a time or place to the effort, or from making it to the finish line to getting to the next mile marker—is often all that’s needed to make someone go from feeling deflated to seeking out the challenge before them.

We can learn a lot from children. Sometimes, when we are stuck in a fit of panic or despair, the best thing we can do is to get curious. To activate a different emotional system. Like kids, sometimes we need a little help, an external distraction, a shift in our goal, or a change in our environment. Anything that provides a little nudge to remind us that while it might seem like the end of the world that we are falling short right now, the world is a big, wild place with many opportunities to explore.

Steve

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