Coping with stress through SEEKING
Updated: Mar 27, 2020
Wallaby enjoying PLAY in the sun
Once again, you’re watching Timmy and Buster as they are playing in the yard. They seem to have the most fun time ever. Timmy’s carefree laughter is almost contagious. You keep watching for a little bit longer, as they are chasing each other around. But then you notice that they look thirsty and possibly hungry. Buster more so than Timmy. Dog trainers suggest to calmly interrupt playtime with a redirection, and offering drinks and snacks you all can share seems like a good way to do just that. As you walk out, you anticipate Timmy’s desire to cuddle, and you look forward to hearing about his stories. Oh, what an imagination he has. “Does Buster share that with him, too? Lol. Naw! Now I’m anthropomorphizing.” As you look down to make sure you got everything while you close the door, you also notice how Timmy and Buster are looking at you all excited at the sight of refreshments. Then you feel it … you feel the startling rumble under your feet.
What in the world is that? You pause for a second to assess what’s happening, and your senses are becoming hyper-focused. The movement isn’t stopping. “Oh no, an EARTHQUAKE!!!” Without thinking, you drop everything and run to Timmy. You notice he is frozen. His young brain, lacking experience, was SEEKING what was going on. It was assessing everything. Both, Timmy’s and Buster’s senses were hypervigilant; forgetting all about PLAY. At this point, their needs have shifted; their states of mind have shifted. During this time of need, dopamine release increases, urging everyone to get their needs fulfilled. And you know instinctively that if you don’t meet Timmy’s needs now, it can traumatize him, and he will learn that in the future he should suppress his fears and concerns and fix things himself.
You reach for him; you notice the swaying of the trees and powerlines, car alarms blaring; heck, yours is blaring, too. You can feel your heart pound like never before. Seconds feel like minutes. But you don’t have time to dwell. As you grab Timmy, you see how “nervous” Buster looks; even frantic. Crap. He felt it too. And when you and Timmy run into the house, you notice that Buster is following closely on your heels. Closer than he’s ever been to you. Once you all make it safely under the table and huddle together, Buster starts licking both of you. You get him to stop. He listens, and for once he actually pays attention to your every word. He redirects and puts his head under your arm; still as close to you and Timmy as he possibly can. But you also notice that he isn’t fully focused on Timmy. More on you. Panting and lip licking more than usual. Still on high alert, you realize that the ground has stopped moving. You finally look around, and see that even though Timmy hasn’t said a word, his arms are tightly wrapped around your neck, and his face is buried against you. Now you can take notice of his breathing and the tight pressure of his grip around your neck. It’s almost painfully tight, but you don’t really want him to let go. It’s been a few minutes since the earthquake stopped. You, Timmy and Buster are still safely hidden under that table. You hear the radio playing; that means you still have power. But thinking of the threat of aftershocks, you decide to still be cautious anyway.
Finally you allow yourself to take a deep breath; your heart is still racing. There now, Timmy has loosened his crushing grip. “Did I tell him to let go? I hope I wasn’t rude about it.” You look at Timmy and see that your hand is still holding on to him. He sees you looking at him and he utters his first words since you grabbed him without thinking. He asks…”what was that? Why did you grab me so hard?” “I’m sorry, Timmy. Are you ok? Did I hurt you?” “Yes, I’m ok. Just a little scared because of the ground shaking and all that noise. That was really scary.” “You’re right, it was scary. But we are okay now, aren’t we? We are safe together, and that’s a good thing, isn’t it? Do you feel safe? Tell me, what are you feeling?” “I’m better. Where are our juices and the snacks?” he asks, as he cuddles up against you once again. You laugh over his young innocence; while you are worried about his mental state, he’s worried about food. Lol. “Timmy is right. I’m kind of hungry too.” Since there’s no more danger, you ask “wanna help me make some food? What do you want to eat? ” “ICE CREAM!!!!!” Timmy yells enthusiastically.
So what happened in the brain? Your brain shut down all unnecessary bodily functions to focus on the more pressing responses of fight or flight. At that point, food meant nothing, and neither did reproduction or the digestive system. Your brain used the innate Primary Emotional System of SEEKING to stay safe, to gather important information about the power lines, the trees and all kinds of other things in your environment. And SEEKING urged you to choose what seemed to be a safe place under the table. Being able to distinguish between earthquake or explosion was possible because of your SEEKING System, since one of the functions of the SEEKING System is to take inventory of one’s surroundings so that we can be safe. And thus, it helps you survive and thrive.
The actions you took to get to safety … that’s your whole brain working together.
The thoughts you had recognizing that Timmy wanted food; realizing that Buster frantically followed on your heels and stayed close; noticing the moment when the ground quit moving; recognizing that you still have power … all that is cognitive function in your upper brain
Asking Timmy how he is feeling … that too is cognitive function, highly influenced by your CARE System.
Your sigh of relief and your ability to laugh at Timmy’s response to the question of food … that is subcortical, and influenced by your PLAY Emotional System to relieve stress.
Timmy, when he froze in the yard? His FEAR Emotional System was starting to take a hold.
You saving him helped him stay in his social Emotional Systems, thus he could actually SEEK you out and start asking questions. Handling all that with Timmy is how mammals are designed to handle stress together.
SEEKING reaches every area of your brain; of your child’s brain and your dog’s brain, too, optimistically catering to the need to look for the positive in everything, no matter how dire a situation. It’s what helped you act fast and without thinking, but also helped you gather all important information about the environment you were in so that you could make smart cognitive decisions. SEEKING is also what prompted Timmy’s behaviors; SEEKING fun through PLAY with Buster at first, then SEEKING comfort and safety, when he tightly wrapped his arms around your neck. And Buster? What was he SEEKING? How did it show in him? How do we know when dogs are SEEKING in the first place?
Well, there is one very important fact to keep in mind. SEEKING never truly stops. It slows down considerably during consummation (i.e. eating), but it never stops all the way. Knowing that the brain is always SEEKING, all we have to do is figure out what our dog, in this case Buster, is SEEKING most.
So, let’s start at the beginning of this story. Timmy wasn’t the only one SEEKING fun through PLAY; Buster was, too … SEEKING engagement and social/emotional connection. Then, when the ground started rumbling under his paws and he became “nervous”, his brain shifted to a different type of positive that was needed: safety, preferably through his trusted person. SEEKING to stay close, he charges after his humans and huddles under the table with them. SEEKING stress relief through emotional connection, he starts licking them. He is asked to stop the behavior, he complies, but his emotional need remains … his SEEKING behavior changes as he redirects to sticking his head under your arm. (Note: we can stop a behavior, but not the underlying urge/emotion/need that drives the behavior in the first place, and it will look for a way to come out at some point). Physiological changes triggered by FEAR cause him to pant harder than usual and also to lick his lips. Now the earthquake stopped, and Timmy’s innocent childlike ability to bounce back quickly into play-mode helps you and Buster do the same … SEEKING shifts again, this time to water and snacks and more play with Timmy, amongst many other little things.
The stories of Timmy and Buster are fictional, yet, what is happening in these fictional brains is exactly what happens in similar real life situations. In fact, just yesterday, a little dog walking client dog named Wallaby felt the need to SEEK me out for safety. Different circumstances, same brain activities, same needs. Watch the video; see if you can spot how Wallaby’s needs change throughout. How her SEEKING shifts as her state of mind changes.
… WHAT’S TO COME NOW: In a series of follow-up posts, we will continue to use the adventures of Timmy and Buster to discuss how the Primary Emotional Systems of FEAR, PANIC/GRIEF, CARE and even PLAY help you survive; and even anxiety. It will be a simple rundown of these innate Primary Emotional Systems found in the subcortical region (Primary Process) of your brain; every mammal’s brain studied. We will also discuss some of the major neuro-chemicals as well as the Secondary Process Level and the Tertiary Process Level of control in the brain.
So, please stay tuned. It will get rather interesting.