Lower the Pressure

Is it truly urgent?
The Practice:
Lower the pressure.
Why?

Things come at us with so much urgency and demand these days. Phones ring, texts buzz, emails pile up, new balls have to be juggled, work days lengthen and move into evenings and weekends, traffic gets denser, financial demands feel like a knife at the neck, ads and news clamor for attention, push push push PUSH.

On top of these external pressures, we deal with internal ones as well. These include all the inner “shoulds,” “musts,” and “have-tos,” like: “I gotta get this done today or my boss’ll get mad.” Or: “I must not look bad.” Or: “I can’t leave the house with dishes in the sink.” A pushy sub-personality prods us to be better, do better, and have more. Harsh, often unfair self-criticism cracks the whip to keep us going and avoid its lash. Also, we form rigid ideas – often unconscious – of what we just have to have to be successful, look good, own the right car, etc. We develop similar kinds of insistence about how it needs to be for others or the world (e.g., how one’s children must do in school, how the country has to be run).

Whether the pressure comes from outside or inside us, it activates ancient motivational circuits that use the neurotransmitter, dopamine. In a nutshell, dopamine tracks expected results (e.g., emails finished, sales goals attained). If the result actually occurs, dopamine rises, which helps us feel relieved while other neurotransmitter systems such as natural opioids give us a sense of pleasure. But here’s the catch: on the way to that desired result, dopamine levels sink some, which brings an unpleasant sense of stress, unease, pushing, and pressure . . . and if we meet delays or roadblocks or flat-out failure, then dopamine plummets, which feels like disappointment, frustration, even despair. To avoid the pain of dopamine dropping, we drive hard toward our goals, caught up in wanting and desire.

This dopamine system – and related but more evolutionarily recent and sophisticated emotions and thoughts layered upon it – was very effective in keeping our ancestors alive in the wild. And it works well today to keep us motivated during emergencies or necessary marathons of effort, from finals week in college to long runs of advocacy on behalf of a loved one.

But even at best, there is an inherent collateral damage in being motivated by need, urgency, and pressure. [Read more...]