We hear a lot about kindness these days, but sometimes you feel like your toes are being stepped on. You want to fight back but the wrong response will make it worse. Cortisol is released when you feel stepped on, and it surges when you contemplate a fight. You can end up feeling like a trapped animal, even though you don’t consciously think that. We’ve inherited cortisol inherited from our animal ancestors, and when you know how it works, you can guide your inner mammal through a conflict more effectively.
1. Narrow Your Objective
Cortisol tells your brain to scan for threats. You find lots of potential threat signals when you look because your brain is designed to do that. You can easily expand your conflict to impossible proportions. To adjust for this brain quirk, consciously focus on a concrete solution to the pain in your toes. When you have a goal and approach it, your brain releases the great feeling of dopamine. You succeed at turning a bad feeling into a good feeling if you resist the urge to fight everything that bugs you at once. A lion will never catch a gazelle if it’s thinking about all the gazelles it has missed before. It succeeds by narrowing its focus.
2. Prepare a Plan B
Your cortisol will surge if Plan A hits a snag. Have an alternative ready to prevent feeling like a gazelle who can’t find an escape route. Plan B eases threatened feelings so your ability to execute Plan A will improve.
3. Build a Sense of Safety
It’s natural to have life-or-death feelings about a conflict because cortisol evolved to command your attention. A gazelle stops paying attention to food when a lion approaches, even if it’s hungry. Nothing else seems to matter once a threatened feeling starts. Fortunately, your body metabolizes and excretes cortisol in 2 hours. If you wait for it to pass, you will fight for yourself more skillfully. First pull out your toes if they’re being actively stepped on, of course. But don’t get into a thing with the stepper until you’ve spent two hours doing something that does not trigger you. If you can’t do that, you shouldn’t be fighting.
A Caution About Kindness
When you hear talk of “kindness,” you may get the idea that “the world is supposed to be kind to ME.” The world does not live up to that expectation, alas, and disappointed expectations trigger cortisol. You can end up with a lot of cortisol. It helps to know that it promotes survival by steering us toward realistic expectations. When a lion fails in its chase, cortisol makes it feel bad, which stops it from wasting energy on that pursuit and frees it to find a better opportunity.
You may not like realistic expectations. You may not like those nature videos of monkeys stuffing their cheeks and running off to a safe spot before they swallow. I am not saying you should stuff your cheeks and run; I’m saying you can remind yourself that everyone has the same threatened and defensive feelings that you have because the mammal brain goes there. We can congratulate ourselves for finding common ground with our troop mates instead of yielding to our first impulse. We mammals have conflict because we live in groups, but we can give ourselves credit for negotiating that conflict. Your toes will feel better.
More simple tips to manage your mammalian brain chemistry in my book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels; and at my website, InnerMammalInstitute.org.