Think about it. High stakes is turned on when things feel insecure:
- We're either feeling threatened by something - so we gear up to protect against the threat; or
- We're afraid we'll lose an important opportunity- so we gear up to protect against the loss.
For example, suppose you have a big project due at school or work. High Stakes might keep you up all night thinking about it, even when you really want to sleep.
Or suppose a police officer approaches you as you're walking down the street. High Stakes might make you so activated that you can hardly resist running away even though you know you should do your best to appear cooperative and calm.
In other words, the main thing that keeps the High-Stakes system turned on is the perception that something high-stakes is going on around us. As long as we feel uncertain, insecure or on edge, the High-Stakes system will keep us activated, on guard, and ready to roll.
On the other hand, the moment the threat goes away - and you feel safe in the world again - High Stakes reactivity is no longer needed. You know this when it happens. The Huns are defeated - or you find out it was only fireworks in the distance. Subjectively, in your heart of hearts, you breath a sigh of relief, shake it off, and begin to return to All-Is-Well. It might not happen the instant the threat is objectively over. You might still worry and mentally prepare for a Hun attack for quite some time. You might turn in your school paper or work project and then start fretting about your grade or review. Or, you might feel outraged for a while after the fact that the police stopped you for just walking down the street in your own town. But, eventually, as the threat gets further and further away, and you begin to feel relatively certain that you're going to be okay, High-Stakes shuts down, and All-Is-Well returns.
Here is the point:
Our brains and bodies are our allies here. They want the High-Stakes system to turn off.
An Exception to the Rule
Right now some of you are probably thinking: That's not true for me! I love the High-Stakes system. I'd spend all my time there if I could. That's how I get things done.
Yes, the activation and excitement of the High-Stakes system sometimes feels good. There are the hormones (like adrenalin and natural morphine-like pain-killers) that we produce in activated states. A lot of us become dependant on these High-Stakes mechanisms to feel ok.
In the long run, however, this 'addiction' to High-Stakes activation is problematic. It is in direct conflict with the natural inclination of our bodies and brains. They tend to prefer the All-Is-Well state, and are usually trying pretty hard to get us back there. This is so they can rest, repair and process the effects of negotiating life on life's terms. In a nutshell, it is the All-Is-Well state of mind and body that enables us not only to restore capacity, but also to learn and grow from the lived experiences that we have.
Knowledge is Power
Let's state the rule again: Our brains and bodies are our allies. They want the High-Stakes system to turn off.
Now that you know this, you have some power. There is all kinds of reactivity you can turn off on your own. The way to turn it off is find a way to make your world feel more secure. Once the high-stakes system is satisfied that 'All-Is-Well', it shuts down. There's no more need for the intense activation. So High-Stakes lets go of the reins. The moment that happens, routine functioning begins to resume and healing and restoration can begin.
In other words, the key to addressing High-Stakes responses, is:
- Figure out what is driving the system: What turned High Stakes on? What is the underlying need?
- Find a way to make yourself feel more safe and secure - short or long-term. Address the problem, fix it. Make it go away if at all possible.
- Find a way to cope. Life is full of discomforts we can't make go away. When that is the case, the trick is to figure out how to tolerate, manage or accept the stuff you can't change or control in the moment.
It's that simple.
That being said, here's a few words to the wise. The process we are talking about is really straight-forward. Learning to use it, and continuing to practice it, however, is actually pretty challenging. Especially when your first starting out.
So, here are a few tips:
So, here are a few tips:
- If you think you might be in High-Stakes reactivity, but you're having trouble figuring out why, take a look at Part III of this guide. Part III is full of reasons why all of us almost anyone might feel insecure. It not only speaks to the 90% of us who have had it rough from the start. It also suggests why even those of us who have done well in modern society and have all the advantages anyone could hope for might still feel like the Stakes are High. As an added bonus, Part III has lots of reflection questions that you can ask yourself. These will help you figure out if your High Stakes activation is about stuff that is happening now, or, if like many of us, you have past experiences - sometimes decades old - that are still keeping you locked in High-Stakes reactivity today.
- Despite its reputation in pop psychology, the High-Stakes system is not your enemy. And, it certainly is not the out-dated 'lizard brain' that some 'trauma-informed' neurological approaches have made it out to be. To the contrary, the High Stakes system is your ally in protecting you. The point of the High-Stakes system is to discover and address the real life needs and concerns that are bothering you. It wants you to actually feel safer and more secure in your world. It therefore insists on solutions that feel trustworthy to you. That is the point of the High-Stakes system.
- The key to restoring your sense of safety (and thereby turning High Stakes off) is to focus on your subjective (felt) experience: Do you feel safer or not? The point is not to look around and try to intellectually convince yourself that you are safe because you can't see any threat. If you still feel threatened, then something threatening still needs to be addressed. We will talk about this more in the following chapters. But for now, recognize that we are not asking you to bull-shit or brain-wash yourself. We also don't care whether others feel you are safe or secure enough. The High-Stakes system doesn't work that way. It is accountable to you and you alone.
With that in mind, it is worth saying a word or two more about the art of coping. Many of us have gotten dug in pretty deep. There are ingrained patterns and life circumstances that may take a long time to remedy and heal. In this situation, it is really important to find strategies that create as much of the "All-Is-Well"experience as possible for you right now. Everyone is different, but at a minimum, these strategies should be:
- Reassuring or affirming to you; and
- Reliably damp down your High Stakes reactivity around stuff isn't likely to change any time soon (if ever).
The good new is that this may be easier than you think. For example, one of the most worrisome facts of our existence is that we all are going to die some day. Yet many of us don't spend a lot of time worrying about that. It's something we know. It's always there in the back of our minds. But mostly we focus on the task of living. We do our best to enjoy and make the most of the life we do have. If that is the case for you, the fact that you have learned to cope with the ultimate uncertainty can be reassuring. It means you can probably find ways to cope with lesser challenges as well.
On the other hand, some of us are really freaked out about death, It bothers us all the time, and the worry is hard to shake. In this case, learning to cope may be a more gradual process. We might have to try out a lot of things before we find something that actually ramps down our Survival reactivity around this ultimate deal-breaker. In the end, maybe spirituality, meaning, or friendships will provide us some comfort. Maybe music or art will resonate with our fears so we feel less alone. Maybe we will forget our fears though love, laugh at them with humor, engage them creatively, or work them off with exercise. Whatever rocks your boat. The good news, again, is that if you can find your way to All-Is-Well while death is staring you in the eyes, then pretty much every other fear is yours for the baiting as well.
Hopefully, this Chapter has given you a framework for understanding and and beginning to work with High-Stakes reactivity. In subsequent Chapters, we will go into more detail about working with High-Stakes reactivity in ourselves, others, and when we're both reactive at the same time.