Apatheia - A state to strive for
What is the one thing I wish I had been taught at school? Probably it would be the art of not panicking. It's a skill that eludes many if not most of us. The obstacles that we face from day to day make us emotional and emotions can be hard to deal with.
Have you noticed that stuff always happens - the events of life take us by surprise and that which seemed so permanent just yesterday evaporates and reminds us of the impermanence of it all.
Even the people we associate with can make our passage through life an uncomfortable journey. A friend put it nicely
“You’re having a whale of a time … then suddenly on the horizon, you spot them – the emotional pirates. They rob us of our dreams, our self esteem and even our health” Mike McLaughlin
Spiritual teachers remind us of the importance of striving to live "in the moment" as an antidote to our human tendency to fret about the past and worry about the future - neither of which we can change.
The ancient Stoics strived to domesticate their emotions. Not as a way of denying events or their impact but as a way of always striving to find a way of looking at things that is a conscious choice rather than from a victim state. Ancient wisdom recognises that every situation, no matter how negative, actually also provides us with a positive benefit we can act on if only "we look for it". As challenging as that seems does getting upset or being swept along by negative emotions actually provide us with more options?
When you really think about it, It doesn't matter whether this seems to be the worst time to be alive or the best, whether the job market is good or bad - what matters right now is right now.
When we want to look at our emotional state right now there are clues in our mind body system. We can practice NLP, meditate, practice yoga or even mow the lawn. There are many techniques that may or met not help in the moment.
With the technology we have today we can measure very easily how we are breathing, how our heart is beating and in fine detail identify the changing state of our autonomic nervous system.
This is the observable aspect of how our emotions in the moment impact upon our body. We can use these measurement tools to help people maintain health, seek higher performance and much more. Biofeedback takes this information and through a process of learning enable anyone to literally sense their state and make adjustments. Whatever your goal in life, controlling emotions would be a positive thing.
"Would you have a great empire? Rule over yourself" - Publius Syrus
From when we are babies in arms we develop and store primitive emotional programmes that are basically about ensuring our survival. The brain is learning to recognise “patterns” that represent threats to our survival. When we are out and about in the world the part of the brain known as the amygdala matches our current situation with the stored patterns of threats. If a “threat” is detected, a response is initiated and it is instantaneous. The amygdala sends a signal to our physiological systems to power up our fight or flight mechanism and it literally disconnects us from our higher consciousness – in other words it stops us thinking! Every cell in the body responds to the stimulus. When someone cuts you up in traffic and you respond with what later seems like “irrational” behaviour – it’s this process at work.
Our autonomic nervous system becomes out of balance as the so-called sympathetic pathway speeds up the body for high effort. A million years ago, the effort of running away or fighting the threat would have burned off the adrenaline which floods into our system to allow this effort. Today, there might not be such an opportunity and when repeated often, this adrenaline overload leads to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, hypertension, cancer, heart disease, stroke and the many other consequences of long term imbalance.
The job of the so called parasympathetic pathway of the autonomic nervous system is to slow down the body systems and release hormones that naturally neutralise the adrenaline. Relaxation and meditation can bring this about but only slowly and anyway we may not be able to relax when it is most needed. It’s not just the autonomic nervous system at work – it’s the molecules of emotion. The hormonal system is slower acting but is extremely powerful and needs to be in balance too.
We probably don’t yet know all of the hormones that flow to regulate our balance. Two of the best known are DHEA which is associated with positive emotions, feelings of well-being and success, and Cortisol which is associated with negative emotions, feelings of submission and despair. It is no good taking DHEA pills (although they exist) because what we need is balance – both in the fast response autonomic nervous system and in the slower response of the hormonal system.
Observing our emotions through the lens of physiological monitoring and then using biofeedback training is a powerful approach for keeping those emotions in check— if we can keep steady no matter what happens, no matter how much external events may fluctuate we are in state that humans have strived for for centuries.
The ancient Stoics had a word for this state: apatheia. This is a state of calm equanimity that comes with the absence of irrational or extreme emotions.