Emotional Garbage: The Practice of Coping
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In the mornings, I leave the ranch with my dogs and walk through the valley and the hilly neighborhoods above our property. We love the safe confines of the ranch, but it’s good for us to interact with the world outside of our fences. The other day, as we were hitting our stride, I noticed the garbage truck noise clattering close-by. We were approaching a high traffic intersection and I started to feel the tension in the leashes. If you slow down and truly “feel” the leash, you can almost sense the leather stretch or vibrate when dogs’ emotions change. I learned this from Patricia McConnell’s work and have valued the leash as a relationship conduit, a communication channel, rather than a tool of control. I love to walk with my dogs off-leash, but when we share space with cars, I like to be safe and remove the risk of an accident.
As we walked along, I felt the pressure grow in the leashes, especially coming from Miss Georgie. From the day we met, Georgie has clearly expressed her disdain for motorized vehicles. At first, it seemed she was afraid of cars. I happen to believe that fear is how all control issues start. Not that I know much about control issues. As Georgie has developed and become a more confident adolescent, her fear has turned into judgment–and hate. Personally, I think she sees vehicles as loud and misbehaved sheep with wheels who need to follow her rules. Those jerks need to get in line, listen, stop moving, and quit making so much noise. She seems to have resolved her fear of cars and channeled it into some alpha bitch leadership which mostly involves dirty looks and periodically biting the air in their direction.
Yet, when big trucks pass by, she is simply terrified. No desire or effort to control, just panic. So as the sound of the garbage trucks escalated, the more she leaned into the leash. At the stop sign, the whole thing fell apart. Screeching brakes, engines revving, metal crashing. Not a good moment in the neurology of Georgie. She pulled to the end of the leash, spun around in a few circles, her eyes wide, pupils dilated, tail tucked between her legs as tight as she could get it, shaking, and ears back. She just about left her body to escape the moment. We happened to be walking through some shade so I called the other dogs closer to me, to my side, and closer to Georgie. And I made the decision, as the leader of that moment, to stop.
Moments like that one can trigger us. Emotions are contagious for mammals and we can feed off our animals’ feelings the same way they can mirror ours. When we get pulled into other’s experiences, recruited into the drama, we aren’t able to offer support. Too often, caught in the emotional storm of fear, we start correcting behavior or we try soothing, anything to change it as fast as we can. But if we are bringing our own reactivity to the situation, we aren’t available to lead others out of tough times. Instead of leading, I would be trying to control. What we have is a domino effect, a cascade of control. Georgie wants to stop them and then I want to stop her. Then, we all become dysregulated and are in an emotional storm together.
Instead, we stopped. I stopped. We literally stopped our feet from moving. I focused on myself, my breathing, my body. I looked for the places where I was holding pressure and tension in my body. I relaxed my fingers on the leash. I didn’t let go but I softened my grip. I created a pause for the other dogs to do the same and space, in that moment, where we could settle and wait for some of the emotions and hormones and fear to lessen. It didn’t go away, but it quieted. And, It didn’t take long at all. As I felt my own body soften, Glen and Tyler let their shoulders down, and Georgie gave a few inches to the tension in the leash. She released herself and moved toward us. We came back to center, back to the present, back to the reality that no one was being attacked by the garbage truck. We were all okay. We were a pack, and we were supporting each other.
We’re so quick to want to correct or change what’s happening and when we succumb to that tendency, all we do is add pressure to an already pressure-ridden situation. I think about the concept of dog or horse “training” and how we use tools to communicate. A person could easily think that what we need to work on in those tense moments is obedience, gestures of authority, or twisted and misunderstood acts of dominance. We’d add a choke chain. We’d pull up on the leash. We’d get louder or tougher. But we would be increasing pressure on the dog and bringing more pressure into the relationship. What Georgie actually needed was the release of pressure, a safe place to be able to experience release. When we show up as an emotional leader for our animals–or other humans–we can create that safe space for ourselves and for others to cope with stress.
Meanwhile, the garbage truck drove down the road unaffected, moving onto the next full can to lift and dump–a cacophony of disruption to the ears of my dear dogs. Life goes on. We continued our walk and stayed soft and connected, pausing a few times for cars or just to check in. The exercise of the hills is one thing, how we do our relationships on that walk is another. I like to attend to both. It’s a different kind of walk.
If we expand this experience beyond the dog pack and think about what we do in our human herds, our responses to stress and pressure are very similar to other mammals. We may be able to utter words and even speak well-formed sentences but often we are emotionally at the end of a leash having a full-blown meltdown.
As it turns out, all mammals have the capacity to cope with stressors, to learn to be less affected by pressure, to desensitize. We can become more efficient at emotional regulation and more brave. When we practice the same skills I was doing with Georgie, for ourselves and with other people, we can increase our capacities to handle difficult situations.
What I’m teaching Georgie and helping her to find in herself are her own internal brakes. The practice of stopping. The skill of slowing down could actually save her life. Panicking around cars is inherently dangerous. She could end up running into the very thing she is afraid of if she is overtaken with panic. When we’re in a situation that is heated and we’re upset, our tendency is to ramp up what we’re doing. We do it faster, we do it stronger, we do it louder, we do more, more and more and more. It’s counterintuitive to slow everything down, to pause and allow our nervous systems to catch up so our higher brain structures can make choices. But it’s precisely what is needed when we are upset. We need to let our feelings settle. We need to stop. The great news is that the more we practice this, the more efficient we can get at using the pause. Our nervous system begins to recognize the pause and it means something. Oh, we’re coping. Oh, the breath. Oh, we’re okay. The pause and the settling become a resource we can use.
Imagine you’re in a meeting and someone says something awful. You take it in. You can feel your blood pressure go up, your veins pulsating, and the back of your neck tingling as your face grows hot. Your hands may even start to tremble as a twinge of rage begins brewing. Some really nasty thoughts ring in your ears. What an asshole. She doesn’t know what the hell she’s talking about. I wish she would just go away and never come back. The tendency is to lean into the pressure and blow things up. Instead of running to the end of the leash and spouting off your mouth or storming out of the room, you can just stop and do nothing. Pause. Breathe. Wait. Slow things down and notice a softness begin to emerge. Something will shift in your human animal body. Increase your awareness and notice you are coping. You are okay. In fact, you are building resilience and courage. When your system cools, the “next right thing” to do will be clear. It turns out that most of the time it’s safer to stop than to run into traffic or chase garbage trucks.