Several weeks ago, after returning from a trip to Costa Rica, I awoke around 3:00 am with severe abdominal pain. My body was hurting, and I noticed that the first one to notice was Mr. Mind. I noticed that my mind started to attend itself to the possible problems by asking the following: “do I have gas, a stomach virus, food poisoning, a kidney stone?” I didn’t have an answer, so I breathed and focused on rest fell back into a semi-restful light sleep for 3 more hours. By 8:00 am the next morning, I was in an urgent care clinic with throbbing pain in my gut and a 101 degree fever.
The doctor explained to me that I had a small rupture in my colon, also known as diverticulitis. No more than a second later I asked, “Is it serious?” “Yes,” she replied, “very, you need to be admitted into the hospital. We already got you a room. Do you need to call anyone?”
Well, without another second to even catch my breath, my mind punched in again and got to work to solve the problem. First possibility, “minor, nothing, a tear that will heal quickly,” or a “serious tear that will require surgery,” or worse yet, “a highly dangerous tissue rupture and bacterial infection in my body cavity”, a bacteria that will possibly move to my brain, sepsis! maybe life threatening!”
Before I knew what had happened, I was taken over with fear. Ten seconds prior to my minor existential meltdown, I was poised and prepared for all manner of news. So, what the hell just happened?! How did I go from stoic to a ruminating anxious hypochondriac? How did I lose touch with rationality so quickly and without even the slightest consideration for evidence or reasoning?
The answer can be found in our cognitive origin. Around 100,000 to 200,000 years ago, homo sapien sapien worried about everything under the following categories: (1) protecting against external threats to life, (2) acquiring food and resources, (3) procreating and ensuring the survival of the next generation, and (4) making and keeping friends and allies.
The main threats to life often included massive predatory animals including saber-tooth tigers, giant hyenas, bears and other humans.
Prehistoric humans would live into their early 30’s and die from any of the million possibilities including rotten teeth, falling rocks, and being speared by an opposing enemy. This period of extreme survival demanded a courageous spirit and pessimistic mind.
Sometimes worry follows a triggering of the sympathetic nervous system, the work horse for a fight or flight response: Pupils dilate (to see better), heart rate increases (to provide more oxygen to the muscles), blood pressures rises, temperature elevates. As the body accelerates, the mind follows suit and begins to also accelerate and worry about the threat(s) and potential solution(s).
Worry was also the result of surviving internal threats. Illness and disease were common maladies and survival favored those individuals who more cautious about what they put into their bodies. Imagine for example that you and two of your cave man friends come upon an English Yew, a berry indigenous to Europe that suppresses the cardiac system and for which there is no antidote.
You are hungry and because of the scarcity and demand for food, and because the berry looks tasty, you have a difficult choice to make? One of your friends, in his voracious effort to acquire food and stave off hunger, eats the berry. The other more worrisome friend thinks you should wait and learn more about the berry. Who do you think has the best chance of surviving the longest?
Our minds have evolved to be pessimistic through the process of natural selection. Because they stood clear of the dark caves, and the unknown berries, and walked hyper alert to the predators looming all around them, our most fatalistic ancestors avoided death better than their optimistic counterparts. Nowadays we don’t regularly worry about predatory animals and volcanoes. Instead we worry about money, and political issues and Kanye West and Kim Kardashian. Will they make it? We can only hope. We worry about what other people think of us or if we are thin enough or attractive.
I worry too about many trivial and serious issues. But as I laid staring at the IV pumping my body with salt and saline, I pondered my gastrointestinal dilemma, and I had a moment of mindful awareness. I noticed that my mind was grappling with the follow statements: “I have a problem, my colon has ruptured and there are bacteria into my body cavity, and I could die. I need to get rid of this problem!” My mind, like my prehistoric predecessors’, was acting on it’s base pessimistic survival instincts and it was staring with curious fright at the possible perils that lay before me, or better yet, inside me.
After several minutes of shifty anxiety, and excessive attempts to convince myself that I was going to be ok, I was reminded from my training and experience in Acceptance Commitment Therapy ACT that “I am not my mind.” I remembered that my mind is an organ designed to help me survive and that it is not always right and almost always inaccurate. I remembered that my mind would prefer that I assume the worst and retreat into safety than engage my life and move toward growth. With some quiet reflection and a few smiles and laughs with my wife, I began to disengage from the negative thoughts and in their place, I asked one question, “What kind of man do I want to be right now?” The answer: humble, appreciative and loving.
I stared at my beautiful wife and I thought of my children. I smiled at the nurse and I sincerely thanked the doctor and staff for their professionalism and time. I became aware of my parents and brothers and friends and remembered that I was less interested in avoiding my death and more in illuminating my life. I called my mother and brothers and friends to let them know that I was alright. I told my wife that I loved her and asked her to hug my children for me when she got home. I noticed that my minds concern was actually an assertion for my love of life. My mind was afraid to lose that which I love so much. I remembered that I am a very grateful man.
I have a colonoscopy in a few weeks and I am looking forward to it, like I’m looking forward to eating dirt out of an expired carton of milk. My mind will likely have lots of questions about the outcome of that colonoscopy. I know as my life continues, my mind will not care about this blog post and about my values. Instead, when the s*&$ hits the fan, my mind will ask which way to the exit, and I am going to try to remember that “I am not my mind.” I am going to ask myself that simple question again, “What kind of man do I want to be right now?”
Till next time
- Cognitive Triad
- Pain and its Gifts
- My Mind Doesn’t Matter
- “To Thine Own Self Be True”: The Pain and Enlightenment of Authenticity