I read a fantastic blog post today about the connections between our expectations in life and how they physiologically contribute to the anxiety a person may experience in light of whatever circumstances they find themselves dealing with. (You can read it here if you’d like to check it out too…)
Picture this with me… a person in a field, with a large shovel, digging a ditch. That ditch is an actual pathway that has been designed for the person digging it to travel through, back and forth, to and from wherever life takes them. Other paths will be dug as well, and they are all connected in one way or another.
Expectations are like that… they are “real, physical pathways in the brain.” To quote the article “Expectations tell us how to make sense of the world more than we realize. Your senses are always taking in more information than you can process. To make sense of the overload, the brain generates an expectation about the next chunk of information that it’s about to receive, and then it scans for a sensory input that matches…”
It’s like how we can drive our cars back and forth to school or to our jobs every day, but we don’t really have to think about what we’re doing. After enough repetition- our brain is wired to take us there practically on auto-pilot. (Kinda scary when you think about it… as my daughter would say, “Jesus, take the wheel….”)
So when our experiences reasonably match up with our expected outcomes, your brain lets out a little dopamine, you give yourself a subconscious high-five for successfully making it to the office again, and you move on. If your experience doesn’t match up with your expectation however, say you wind up stuck in traffic for 90 minutes and your boss is calling you every 3 and harassing you for it, then cortisol is released. And while cortisol is designed to play a useful part in these should-be occasional situations- a constant overproduction of it is also the root of anxiety.
But what happens when it’s not occasional? When you wake up one day to find yourself abandoned by someone you love? When you find yourself suddenly as the caregiver to a beloved family member that has fallen ill, or the loss of the job that provided financial security and stability to your family? What happens when loss and grief and illness make its way into your life completely uninvited, causing your emotions and your expectations to begin rewiring your mind for something your heart believes to be different, but your experiences are demanding that you feel otherwise?
How do you cope with this? In a way that will do more than get you through the moment, but that will actually deliver hope and confidence and security again?
After enough trips down whatever pathway has led us to believe that the stress and overwhelm are our new normals- are we capable of digging new roads? New pathways in our minds, of our choosing, that lead us to the destinations we’re being called to?
Physiologically it is possible, but as so many have experienced, it can often be quite difficult. Coupled with the affects of lacking nutrition, poor gut health, or even a genetic disposition that lends many to lacking the needed mood managing hormones and neurotransmitters needed to allow you to function well, some days it may seem near impossible.
But I believe for most, that it is indeed possible.
We are wired for healing, when given the right tools. It’s important to approach this from a wHOLe body/mind/spirit perspective, taking careful consideration to nourish and support each of those areas of our lives. Foundational things for the body like proper nutrition, rest, and exercise are what is needed to begin building a solid place to start from. From the spiritual perspective, knowing and relying on a deep unwavering faith in the God who designed you, and understanding the assurance that you can have of your standing with Him are necessary to eventually moving forward in confidence. (For example, if you trust God’s sovereignty and authority as Creator, and that it is centered around a created order, then you can find it easier to trust His involvement and activity in whatever circumstances that you may be facing, and ultimately find greater peace in genuinely trusting the outcome to Him as well… even if the outcome is devastating.) Those two areas lend the mind to having the confidence and strength to being able to think and believe what it knows to be true, even when other experiences might cause us to feel otherwise.
I don’t pretend that this perspective is an easy one to own, and I also don’t throw it out casually, because without the proper context… well frankly anyone that is capable of living from this mindset can be easily perceived as someone who just doesn’t care.
Let me try to unpack this a little… in the winter of 2006, my then 47 year old dad was diagnosed with cancer. And not just any cancer. His doctors called it an “old man’s” cancer, and he obviously was not that. Fast forward to the early months of 2010. While sitting up in bed, he went to place a pillow behind his neck and jarred the top of his head with it while he was adjusting. What followed was intense pain and an inability to turn his head freely at the neck. Every possible test was run in the following days to try to uncover what had happened, but nothing could be found. He spent the next 2-3 weeks going about his days as normal as possible. The craziest thing I remember that he did during those weeks was to still drive his motorcycle. And then one day, while I was in my kitchen prepping dinner, I got a call from my mom. Some MRI or x-ray had finally shown the tiniest fracture in the same vertebrae of my dad’s neck that Christopher Reeve had also injured that paralyzed him and put him on a ventilator for the rest of his life. “One wrong move” and my dad’s neck could’ve broken and killed him instantly.
As long as I live I’ll never forget that moment. It shaped something foundational in my perspective of life, and was one of the few times I could ever say I audibly heard God speak to me. God told me in that moment “Can’t you see? I’m not done with him. Heather, nothing can happen to him that I haven’t given permission for. I have a plan, and no matter what happens to him, he is safe with me. Nothing can possibly bring him home to Me until I say it’s time.”
And He was right. And my expectation of the outcome of my dad’s story changed drastically in that moment. I went from “what are we gonna do if he dies? He’s too young! Our hearts will be crushed. This isn’t fair. He has to get better, God you have to heal this disease. His years of being a grandpa are just getting started- how would we all live without him here?” to “when/if God takes him home, it will hurt beyond anything any of us have ever understood. And there will be a forever hole. It will be devastating. But my story and dad’s story is not the story. It’s only part of a bigger one. And I trust the writer. God, if you take him home, I trust that you’re still good, and I trust that whatever you have decided is ok.”
Dad’s passing hurt. It still hurts. I mean it hurts so big. But I believe that my expectations and my choices for how I perceived the outcome are what allowed me to walk through it and to move forward. I also wonder if some of my family members ever questioned whether or not I grieved. My expectations were not without hope, and my life was not lived in a way that I didn’t actively pursue whatever could be done towards his healing. I did not give up… but I did give in. I gave in to understanding that I could not control the outcome, no matter how hard I tried. That little ditch digger in my head began creating that pathway in 2010 by which most stressful situations would have to travel through. Situations that are met with a now default understanding that as I abide with my Father God, knowing who I am in Him and the access I have to His power, as his daughter, coupled with my unique experiences, personality, and gifts, I can trust and accept any outcome, even if it’s hard or when it hurts.
Because of that- it’s ok that my dad died. I can move forward.
Because of that- it’s ok that you’re single now. You can move forward.
Because of that- it’s ok if your foster child is sent back to their family. You can move forward.
Because of that- it’s ok that you lost that job. You can move forward.
And here’s one of the reasons why this is so important. Our early responses to the horrible and hard things that can happen to us will decide whether we become paralyzed by them or whether we keep on living.
So today- how can you begin digging a new ditch? Stretch the muscles of your mind so that a new normal is created, and allows you to begin blazing the trail to the life you’ve been called to? You know, I had a few other tools in my toolbelt that helped that shovel dig a little deeper and even more quickly at times too. Head over to the Essential Oils Tab for a quick webinar on EO’s and Emotions to hear more.
Bottom line- this world needs who you were created to be. What if you grabbed that shovel and started digging a little today? Go on. Dig in. Toss that first scoop of ground to the side. A new direction is yours today.