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Updating Your Ancient Personal Alarm System
As a human being you have a built-in personal alarm system protecting you. How does it work? Where did it come from? Is it trying too hard and getting in your way? If so, what can you do about it?
Are you interested in how people work? I am. I sometimes find it useful to look at our history as a species for insight. During most of that history, except for the last 10-12,000 years of civilization, we humans and our pre-human ancestors lived in small hunter/gatherer groups. This period lasted many times longer than civilization has existed. It’s how we got started as a species. We’re pretty much designed to live that life. Mechanisms and behaviors that made sense then are often still active today.
Conditions are different now, and because of that these old mechanisms and behaviors can wind up creating problems. One major source of problems is what I call the ancient personal alarm system. I call it ancient because it is hardwired into us. It is as old as humanity.
A good example is how we react to fire. As a little kid, how often did you have to touch the pretty candle flame to learn not to? Once? I would also bet the protective reflex you developed of pulling back has never faded. Also that it applies now to your whole body, so if you notice any part of your body too close to fire you pull back automatically.
That’s a very useful and impressive system we all have. Look what it does. It gives us one-time learning that never fades. It is always alert and can take immediate control of the mind and body, overriding conscious intention and desire with protective behavior. You don’t have to remember not to touch fires. It’s like someone is watching out for you. If you get too close to fire, that watcher takes action until you are safe again. It focuses your attention and pulls your body back.
Imagine putting your finger deliberately into a fire. How does that feel? It's not something you could do easily, if at all.
Now imagine your life is shaped by this sort of influence. Any time you think of doing something your alarm system considers dangerous, you get the same kind of resistance as to putting your finger in a candle flame. The avoidance is so automatic that most such ideas never make it to your conscious mind.
This alarm system learns by habit as well as by trauma. We come into this world programmed to absorb behaviors, beliefs, and attitudes, including the alarm settings of those around us to some degree. This is how traditions and family patterns get handed down.
Whether from trauma (finger in the fire) or habit (learned from others) I call these “settings” and we seem to have a part that really wants us to stick with the settings, to be safe. Intentions to deviate are met by feelings such as anxiety, which can be intense. Stage fright and fear of flying are examples, among many more.
Even an intention can trigger resistance. Imagine taking your clothes off in a supermarket. What is your emotional response? Articulate? No. Persuasive? Yes. I’m sure you’re not going to, nor will I (promise).
That’s a silly example, but if you want to speak in front of a crowd, speak up in a meeting, contradict someone in authority, perform better than anyone else, or (pick your example) doesn’t the same thing happen? An intention to go outside your "safe zone" triggers the alarm system to kick in and do its best to keep you inside it. This is why real change is so hard. Anything outside what we are used to is regarded as something to be avoided.
One problem: the safe zone is primarily established when we are little kids, when we easily misunderstand and can be scared by things that are not really dangerous. A look or a loud voice can create a limit. Or we can be in a truly negative environment and attach danger to many things that in adult life are not dangerous. What if having everyone look at you is a trigger for intense fear? Public speaking will be hard? In adulthood, a intense event can shape our lives from then on, as with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). These are ways the ancient personal alarm system doesn't relate well to the complexities of modern civilization.
Living inside these emotionally charged boundaries can be difficult. It can be frustrating, perhaps stifling, lonely, filled with anxiety and stress. Phobias, for instance, are the personal alarm system saying “Don’t you EVER do anything like that again!” Shyness, fearfulness, anxiety and stress are alarm system responses. Repetitive patterns that don’t produce desirable results are signs of the alarm system at work, preventing completion, success, or whatever has been identified as dangerous. So are self-critical thoughts, recurrent memories, and PTSD. Really, we encounter this ancient alarm system all the time. It is one of the basic features of how we navigate the world.
The growing problem is that our current civilization is actually far more traumatizing than the hunter/gatherer life was, and on top of that, our personal alarm systems can easily label something as dangerous that is really not. Violence is visible everywhere, in the news and in movies and on TV. It is central to our entertainment. We live in a more personally alienated environment, with fantastic dangers our ancestors could not have imagined: super-diseases, nuclear bombs, environmental collapse, terrorism, and so on. Not to mention the less than perfect families many of us have come from, car accidents and other mechanized mayhem, and personal events in our lives with traumatized people who shared their trauma with us. It is no wonder we feel stressed.
The result can easily be an over-activated personal alarm system that in some cases won’t shut off at all. Besides feelings of alarm and anxiety or insecurity of various sorts, it floods the body with adrenaline and other stress hormones which affect our mental and emotional state. All this can lead to exhaustion in more extreme cases, or even disease.
What happens if extending yourself personally or professionally means going outside your personal safety zone, thus triggering this resistance? The alarms will stop you unless you put in a lot of effort over time, and usually then as well. The personal alarm system is very effective at keeping you inside the safe zone. That is its only mission: to keep you away from what it has identified as dangerous, based in your earlier emotional responses and on absorbed reactions. It is a powerful guardian of the status quo.
Here’s the simple logic: you’re alive with what you’re doing now, and if you do something different there’s the possibility of danger, so don’t.
Where’s the off switch? We need a way to turn down overactive alarms, or turn them off completely, safely and painlessly, if we are to grow, to be and accomplish what we’re capable of.
Some of the best news since the invention of civilization is that we can now turn down those alarms efficiently and easily by tapping into a mechanism of the body/mind. The alarm system is a body/mind system. You only had to think of putting your finger in the fire or undressing in the supermarket to get a visceral alarm response. If you pushed the idea, you’d probably find your muscles getting tight, finding it hard to breathe, or something similar. Your mind would turn off or be “distracted” to other topics. Body and mind are inseparable.
EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) is a new discovery that undoes the alarms system’s triggers. It is the oldest and most widespread of a family of emerging techniques called “Meridian Therapies.” They combine the meridian system of Chinese acupuncture (tapping or otherwise stimulating a few easily reached acupressure points with the fingers, no needles are used) with Western use of the mind. In EFT the mind is used to focus on how specific alarm settings came into being, what sets them off, and so on. To everyone’s astonishment, the combination makes the alarms go silent. The safe zone expands and stays that way. Energy tied up in watching out for alarming events becomes available to the person for more creative use.
Sometimes additional triggers show up, and you treat them like a new alarm, quieting them, not by repression but by simply undoing the response. The process is usually quite easy, especially compared to any other way of doing it. It's fast, too, sometimes taking minutes, sometimes longer.
EFT is simple enough for anyone to learn and use it for themselves. If blocks, anxieties and so on lead you to think your alarm system may be a little overactive, this may be a way to work with that. Because our ancient alarm system comes standard but circumstances have changed, we need a way to bring it up to date by adding a “volume” adjustment and a “delete” function where that’s useful. Now you have a starting point.
Learn more about the author, Daimon Sweeney.
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- emotional freedom technique