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  • Writer's pictureDavid Knell

"It is what it is," Part 2: Weakening negative triggers through positive exposure

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

As I wrote in my previous post, several years ago I worked at a toxic company. My boss, himself not a toxic guy, frequently said, "It is what it is." The statement bothered me because it always seemed like an excuse to give up. 

But a second reason this statement bothered me was because the place I became exposed to it was toxic. I simply developed a bad association with it. And so, over the years, whenever someone else said it, I would be reminded of that awful time in my life. 

I don't remember my wife ever using the statement before, but a few months ago she started saying it. So triggering was this statement for me that I went so far as to ask her if she wouldn't mind not saying it. (I can't think of a time I've ever asked something like that if anyone, but I suppose it just bothered me that much.) Very kindly, she complied. 

She slipped up multiple times, understandably. But the more she said it, the less it bothered me. At one point I even found myself saying it as a joke. Pretty soon the past negative association was overshadowed by the more recent and by that point more frequently one. The bit in my brain that stored that statement felt more connected to my wife than to my experience in the toxic workplace. 

There is an important lesson here. 

It seems triggers can be softened with time and reassociation with something positive or neutral. I'm no neuroscientist or psychologist, but perhaps this is a function of brain plasticity. After all, if the phrase took on that negative association in my brain in the first place, clearly the brain can make connections where none existed before. 

The births of my daughters were each intensely harrowing experiences. Some months after the second birth, my wife and I could tell something was wrong. Whenever I heard a sudden loud noise, a burst of panic would come over me. My entire body tensed, and I involuntarily ducked. I went to see a therapist. He said I had PTSD. After therapy and medication, it's not gone, but it's better. 

I wonder if I could intentionally program my brain to associate loud noises not with overwhelming existential anxiety but some more benign emotion. Interested surprise or alert awareness perhaps. 

I suspect meditative practices in general would help. If there is less chatter and clutter in my mind, it may not react so violently to a shocking stimulus. A good analogy might be that if you bang a drum in a small room it will sound louder than if you hit the same drum in an auditorium. 

I've noticed that the more open space there is in my mind, the more calmly and rationally it responds to a sudden, intense stimulus. The more stuffed to the brim it is, the more jumpy and reactive I am. 

Here's an extreme idea. I imagine being given a professional massage inside a shooting range. I lie on padded the table, trying to relax my body and my mind, when every so often, at random, a gun shot goes off. It would be terrifying at first. But because I would actively be trying to achieve a physical and mental stillness, perhaps I would be able to bring my myself to non-panic faster and faster. With time, my brain might even respond to sudden loud noises with alert awareness instead of tense terror. 

That's obviously not going to happen, and there is definitely more to think about this subject, but it's good food for thought. 

Thanks for reading. 

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