My 10 year-old-son was returning from a two week trip with great anticipation. During his ride home he imagined himself running into the house and jumping onto his favorite living room chair. Ah, he thought, this is my home. Unbeknownst to him, while he was away my husband and I rearranged the living room furniture. When my son entered the living room ready to leap onto his chair, he noticed it was not in its familiar location, but had been moved across the room. Much to my and his surprise, instead of a happy homecoming he was disoriented and quite upset. It was as though his sense of safety and belonging had disappeared.
His reaction reminded me of a similar situation I experience in my childhood. One day I was entering my bedroom and noticed that my bureau was moved out of its usual place. I did not notice my grandfather hidden behind the furniture fixing an electrical outlet. Instead of thanking Grandpa for helping to fix the outlet my adrenaline rushed high making me ready to fight and I exploded in anger. Afterwards I was so embarrassed by my behavior that I cannot think of the incident today without feeling uncomfortable.
I can’t help but remember other instances when my emotional response was negatively overwhelming. One such time I had to make an announcement of a meeting to occur in the cafeteria after class. I stood up to speak and immediately became clammy and dizzy. The expectation that I could stand and make such a simple announcement was betrayed by my body’s reaction, causing me to have to sit with my head between my knees until I could calm down.
In later life I became intrigued by the question of uncontrolled emotions and started looking at the physiological makeup of the body. What is seen as a response to a situation is the “emotion” (happy, sad, anger, fear etc.) but our body’s involuntary nervous system is the real culprit that produces these effects. People used to think that body and brain were separate but today the idea is accepted that mind and body are connected. We do not feel this connection as we do with voluntary nervous system responses such as when you hit a brick wall with your hand and feel the pain. It is more complex to look at the involuntary or less conscious part of your nervous system to be able to understand emotional responses.
What is this part of the nervous system that can cause so much havoc? To put it simply the autonomic, involuntary or visceral nervous system is a part of the body that acts as a control system below the level of consciousness. Bundles of nerves deal with functions like heart rate, perspiration, glands, digestion and salivation, diameter of the pupils, urination, and sexual arousal. Often their effects are life saving as when your adrenaline jumps in dangerous situations, helping to focus attention and enable fast reactions. At other times, especially under conditions of prolonged stress, the effect can lead to ulcers or heart disease.
Can these involuntary emotional systems be controlled? Pharmaceutical companies think so and have developed a multi-billion dollar industry with pills like Prozac. Many monks and yogis think so and spend years meditating in order to control their involuntary systems. Drug dealers think so and sell mind altering drugs like marijuana and cocaine.
When I was president of The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) we developed an exhibit that showed how the mind can learn to control the involuntary system. A visitor would go into a quiet booth and put two fingers on adjacent probes. The goal was to make one finger warmer than the other through mind control. When the temperatures differed by a degree an electric train placed outside of the booth would be put in motion. A great many visitors were able to accomplish this feat.
Many doctors teach people how to do “hot hands” to treat migraine headaches. Modern techniques involving conditioning and bio-feedback equipment are used to speed up the meditative process. The goal is to teach migraine sufferers how to make their blood flow from head to hands, opening the restricted vessels in their neck that often cause pain.
My personal technique for controlling many of my involuntary reactions was meditation. I practiced twice a day for many years and was able to slow my heart rate and keep adrenaline from spiking uncontrollably, thereby enabling me to participate in public situations when I needed to make a speech. Yoga, Pilates, massage and other practices focus the mind to control stress and other negative emotions.
Today I find it more important than ever to incorporate mind control activities into daily living. They help give me a sense of perspective as I deal with so many unexpected situations (the economy, family illnesses to name a few). Great expectations are not always met. Sometimes things go wrong, but just as many times there is a pleasant surprise with the outcome better than expected. To try new ideas and dream of happy endings is human. At the same time having your body prepared to react to the unexpected can help you weather the ups and downs that get in the way of your dreams with great expectations.