A Coping Strategy

[These are the 5 principles referred to in the following passage

  1. Face the brutal facts but never lose hope.
  2. Know that God is in control.
  3. Take one day at a time.
  4. Live every day to the fullest.
  5. Count your blessings.]


The drive home was infinitely better than the nightmare drive up.  Nothing physically in Nancy’s brain had changed except now we had a little four letter word that made all the difference.  H-o-p-e.

Taking one day at a time (rule #3) and living every day to the fullest (rule #4) is impossible when your mind dwells on impending loss and fear. Who wouldn’t live their lives differently if they knew when and how they were going to die?  But would you live it to the fullest or cower in fear as the day approached?

In the beginning our 5 principles was my bedrock, but as time went along I realized I needed a deeper understanding to cope successfully.  I could not give Nancy the support she needed just by sucking it up.  It is impossible to fool anyone over time.  If I didn’t think she could beat this she would eventually intuitively know.

While doing research for leadership training for my team at the plant, I ran across two fascinating structures in the brain that helped me understand why, as hard as I try, I still struggled emotionally.

One is the Reticular Activating System (RAS).  The RAS controls the transition from sleep to wakefulness, certain sexual functions, and is the gate keeper to what we pay attention to.  The RAS is the reason we can single out our name when someone calls it out in a crowded, noisy room.  It’s what makes us jump without thinking when we see a snake or some other imminent danger.  It’s what draws our attention to a comment someone makes that confirms a deep seated insecurity.  Indeed, it brings to our attention the things that confirm what we believe.  It works at the subconscious level and frees up our brains to work on important things that require concentration.

The RAS explains one of the reasons change is so difficult.  If we think we’re fat and lazy, it brings to our attention all the things that confirm it.  If we think we’re going to die… well it brings to our attention every little tidbit of doom and gloom.

The second structure I found fascinating is the basal ganglia. Most of us go about our daily routine unaware how much of it is controlled by habit.  What we do without thinking; like the order in which we dress, brushing our teeth, or even driving is controlled by habit. Researchers have found that once we perform a task repeatedly, it is stored in a primal part of the brain, the basal ganglia, which is about the size of a golf ball and resides beneath the forebrain and near the brain stem. The basal ganglia switches on the habit and provides a pleasant reward of neurotransmitters once the task is done.  The more a task is performed the stronger the neural connections to perform that task are strengthened and the easier it becomes to perform the task.  Our brain begins to crave the feeling of satisfaction we receive from the neural transmitters once the task is completed. This is why it is so hard to break a habit.

With much of our brain seemingly running on autopilot, how do you not dwell on the negative?  The conclusion I came to was simple yet powerful (for me at least), and that is to be mindful of my thoughts and be present in the moment.  Once I became cognizant of my desired outlook (our 5 principles) the goal was to consciously cultivate thoughts in that direction.  My theory is that once the neural pathways were strengthened and habit took over, the RAS would become my friend and begin bringing to my attention the positive (rule #5, count our blessings).

So instead of my mind’s eye catching on every little symptom and immediately interpreting it as a sign of impending doom, our outlook fundamentally changed and we began to see the setbacks as just a bump on the road to recovery.  That needed to be our focus: recovery.  The setbacks just a bump in the road.  We are all on a journey, some parts of the road rougher than others.  The best any of us can do is seize the day.  Carpe diem, baby, the doctors at Duke and the Polio trial gave us hope!  God is in control (rule #2) and we can face the brutal facts yet never lose hope (rule #1).