How a Nanosecond Can Change Your Life

It all happened in a flash.  I was biking quickly along a main road in North Vancouver racing to catch the Seabus. I was running late and needed to catch the next sailing to make my client meeting downtown.  I was in a bike lane alongside a steady stream of traffic to my left.  Several cars further ahead were making right-hand turns at the next intersection.  Neither of the two vehicles nearest to me had their signals on and appeared to be driving straight through.  But as I approached the intersection with speed I had a funny sense to slow down and see what the truck just to my left would do.  He turned right – fast – without a signal or even noticing me.  Had I kept up my race to the Seabus I almost certainly would have been blindly run over.

The Value of Emotional Regulation

While this post may seem to point to the value of defensive biking – it is far more about emotional regulation when you understand the backdrop to the story and the 20-minute window before I left for my appointment.

As I was preparing to leave the house my wife and children were finishing up a card game. My 7-year old won and my 9 year-old became very angry over his loss.  At times, his over-anxious brain can magnify losses like this such that they are perceived as a huge threat.  It is unconscious and irrational, and shows up as a very strong fight-or-flight reactive state.  This is something he is working hard at and is making progress in understanding and managing.  Despite his good work, it still can show up as anger and aggression when triggered.

While I felt the growing urgency to leave for my appointment, I also felt the need to help my son settle down.  This required extreme calm, patience, non-judgment and compassion as I took the brunt of his anger.  All the while my mind was constantly checking the clock to see whether I could still make my appointment.

Within 10 minutes he was settled and I was on my way to my meeting.

It would have been so easy to judge his angry behavior over a game as unreasonable.  It would have been so easy to get frustrated, angry and impatient.  It would have been so easy to move to force or consequences (which only makes things worse) or to move to victim mentality and how unfair or unreasonable this is for me.  And it would have been so easy to have raced out of the house, jumped on my bike, rushed to the Seabus, with my mind ablaze with anger.  All of which I have done before.  And in that highly emotional state I know I would have been only dimly aware of my surroundings once on my bike.

Instead, I managed to keep my nervous system calm, focused and aware.  This allowed me to be fully present to the threats around me while bike commuting with a sense of urgency.

Respond versus React

Reacting emotionally in a situation like this is what my brain does automatically.  In fact, it is very good at it.  But my daily mindfulness practice has allowed me to add crucial nanoseconds to the ‘gap’ between stimulus and response.  It is in those nanoseconds that I now often find a better response to what is happening in front of me than my automatic and highly emotional reaction would dictate.  In this case, my ability to find a better way to help my son process some big emotions not only helped him, it maintained and built the kind of relationship we desire.  And it allowed me to move into my next moment (biking quickly to the Seabus) in a calm, yet fully alert way.  In hindsight, I believe that calm, alert awareness kept me alive for another day – or at least out of ER! 

My personal experience is supported by research.  For example, a paper entitled The Mindful Brain and Emotion Regulation in Mood Disorders, published by the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, February 2012 by N. A. S. Farb, A. K. Anderson, and Z. V. Segal, cites various studies with similar findings.  Effectively, by bringing a non-judgmental awareness to your physical senses (and your emotions) in the moment – you train your brain to not judge situations  as seriously and not ruminate on them as long.  This helps free you up to focus on the next task.

Conclusion

Learning to manage our emotional brain is something available to all of us.  It is like learning to drive a car – there are some simple processes and distinctions that help you understand the mechanics of driving.  Similarly, there are simple distinctions and practices that strengthen the part of your brain you need to be strong such that you can add those crucial nanoseconds to your reactions and respond with intention rather than from a state of reactivity.  There are many benefits to greater emotional regulation, for both you and the people closest to you.  This experience showed me how not getting swept up by our emotions can also prevent potentially catastrophic outcomes. 

While you may not be bicycle commuter, we all engage in activities that have some risk if we don’t give them our full attention (like driving, crossing an intersection or a heated conversation with your spouse or teenager!). Gaining a few nanoseconds can often make the difference between two very different outcomes.  Why not give yourself an advantage toward the outcome you want most?

Thank you for reading this post.  Let me know what you think – comments are often as useful as the post itself.  And if you are interested in learning more about how to manage your brain, please connect with me at scott@mindfulwisdom.ca or visit www.mindfulwisdom.ca to learn more about my passion.