As with this entire blog, but especially for mental health, these are just some of my own experiences. It’s important to know that you are not alone and not wrong or different, even if what you’re reading here does not reflect what you know or feel. Everyone’s experience is their own. Most importantly, please go to and follow the advice of the professionals, not some schmo on a blog. Now, onward…
Here’s a scenario for you:
You’re standing in line at Sbux. Scratch that. You’re standing in line at your local coffee shop and you’ve brought your own mug because yay small businesses and the environment.
Here’s what happens:
A woman across from you is bored as hell waiting for the barista to make her no fat milk double pump sugar free vanilla London Fog. Her eyes absently scan the crowd. As she reaches you, she realizes she has to sneeze. She wrinkles her nose and sniffs, which abates the sneeze. The barista calls her name and she takes her cup and leaves.
Here’s your experience:
You look up and see someone staring at you. She wrinkles her nose at you in disgust. Your face flushes and your heart picks up pace.
Omg what is it? What is it? Why are they looking at me like that?
You check your fly. Up. You inspect your shirt. No unplanned boobage. You wipe your face. Seemingly clean.
That sick feeling in your stomach starts to roil around, like you just took a big swig of ipacec and it’s starting to do its job. You whip your head around nervously and notice that someone else is looking at you. And maybe someone else too. Definitely that guy.
What is it that everyone can see that I can’t? Is my makeup smeared all creepy clown style? Is this outfit just atrocious? I knew I shouldn’t have tried to match that shirt with these earrings!
Now suddenly you’re not in the coffee shop. You’re in second grade and that catty little group of Jennifers is cackling and pointing because you’ve got a lisp and it’s really hard for you to say Mississippi.
Now, in a flash, you’re in high school and you’re keeping your head down as you are once again picked last for the dodge ball team in gym class.
Now, you’re in college and the love of your life is breaking up with you because he met someone else.
It is me. There’s something wrong with me.
Skin blazing with shame and tears about to burst their dam, you leave the line and head to your office where you can hide behind your computer for the rest of the day before you go home and finish off a bottle of Merlot.
This might be an extreme example for you. It might not be nearly extreme enough.
But don’t tell me you haven’t been there. That moment when something small sets you off down a deep, dark path that can put you back a few hours, a few days, sometimes even a few weeks.
This concept was explained to me in a really interesting way recently. It was described as creating your own movie.
There’s the “real” movie (in this case a woman is bored and then has to sneeze) and then there’s “your” movie (she and everyone else is judging you and there’s something wrong with you).
Our brains are actually supposed to do this. Or at least they were. Scientists believe our brains developed this to help us survive from things like…getting eaten by lions.
Well, not this lion. He’s too CUTE!
Let’s try this old school scenario:
It’s a bajillion years ago. We’re standing out in the open. The wind sweeps through the tall grasses.
Here’s our experience:
Oh shit, the last time the grass moved like that, a lion jumped out and ate my buddy. MOVE MOVE MOVE!
Our body goes into fight or flight and we GTFO.
So you see…great for lions.
Not necessarily as great for the 2017 you, swiping right while waiting for your latte made from milk provided by Daisy the cow whose picture is lovingly displayed next to the cash register.
Obviously, we still need to be able to identify issues and use past experiences to guide us. But for many of us, especially those of us with trauma in our backgrounds, that old lion safety mechanism does more damage than good.
So how do we short circuit the Lion Effect?
You may have noticed in our fun little scenario, one of the first things that happened was you got hot and your heart started to beat faster. You know why? Because your fight or flight was starting to kick in. The chemicals that tell your body “POSSIBLE LION ATTACK” were starting to release.
And it’s kind of a self fulfilling prophecy. The more chemicals you release, the more activated you get, which releases more chemicals.
So one great way to short circuit this is to get your brain to STOP producing those chemicals.
So. Here’s a really cool trick that I was taught. It sounds SO STUPID. I mean really stupid.
I want you to just be completely prepared for how stupid this is. Embrace the stupid. Roll the shit out of your eyes.
But then give it a chance. Because I did and I’m telling you, it helps.
Here’s what you do.
If you notice the chain reaction beginning and you’re starting to mentally spiral or feel physical sensations, do the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise.
Stare straight ahead.
If you’re alone, say these outloud (I’ve done this).
If you’re with a friend, turn to them and ask if you can do it with them (I’ve done this).
If you’re in public, put your earbuds in and pretend like you’re talking to someone (I’ve done this), put your earbuds in and actually call someone (I’ve done this) or say it in your mind (I’ve done this).
Name 5 things you can see
Name 5 things you can hear
Name 5 things you can feel
Name 5 things you can smell
Name 5 things you can touch
Then, start again, with 4 things. Then 3, then 2…you get it.
You can name the same things if you want or try to name different ones. It doesn’t really matter what you’re naming. What you’re doing is giving your brain something to do and allowing the chemicals that were released in your body to start to fade, so your body doesn’t produce more.
Do it. JUST DO IT.
I didn’t believe it either. But as someone who suffers from PTSD, I can attest to the benefit of this really stupid practice. It really can help short circuit that lion effect. It gives you a chance to think outside of the chemical release. To determine if there really is a lion or if perhaps you are safe after all. And chances are, you are safe and that lady was really just wrinkling her nose to sneeze.
Be safe and lion free, you adult.