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What is Looking for Bears?

Estimated time to read: 7 minutes (1,447 words)

"Be curious, not judgmental."
- Unknown
(not Walt Whitman)

The greater Seattle, Washington, USA area is one of my favorite places in the world. I am awed by the year-round natural beauty of the region – the green forests, and snow-capped mountains, and lakes and rivers and streams, and moss-covered rocks. I especially like summer in Seattle - it's the best day of the year! One of my favorite Seattle-area spots is a quick hop out Interstate 90 East from Seattle into the forests. After a short hike in, you wind up at a small waterfall. At its base there is an island that the water splits around, allowing you to walk right up to the waterfall. It is peaceful and calming and soothing.

Let's say you decide to come visit me in Seattle and we head out to this spot to go for a hike. You set out ahead of me as we hike along the trail and, as you round a bend, you come face to face with a bear not 15 feet ahead of you on the trail. What happens when you see this bear, and specifically, what happens in your body?

In school we are taught about the body’s five basic senses – vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell. We have a lot more than five senses though. There are dozens of other senses including Thermoception (temperature), Chemoception (chemicals), Interoception (the ability to feel what is going on inside our bodies, like hunger, thirst, and bladder), Proprioception (a sense of our body’s position and movement), and Nociception (pain). Another sense, coined by Dr. Stephen Porges in his 2007 paper titled “The Polyvagal Perspective[1]”, is Neuroception: "a neural process, distinct from perception, that is capable of distinguishing environmental (and visceral) features that are safe, dangerous, or life threatening." In other words, it's our brain's subconscious ability to detect whether the people and environments around us are safe or not. It is our sense of safety and danger.

When you see the bear, your Nociception senses a potential threat and your autonomic nervous system engages its sympathetic response, often called fight or flight. Your body begins a cascading rush of hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Your physiological changes: breath rate increases, pupils dilate, blood sugar levels increase, digestion shuts down, your muscles tense up. Your body, in preparation for a potential attack, begins to circulate white blood cells as though it has already been attacked. This is known as mobilization. Your body wants to be as prepared as possible in case it needs to respond to an injury. While this is happening subconsciously, your rational brain also takes a back seat so your brain can devote its full resources to managing the threat. Your limbic system, your survival brain, takes over from your rational, thinking brain. You’re not thinking about the bathroom, and you’re certainly not thinking about food except that you might become food. You become hyper-focused and alert, and your brain starts analyzing possible responses to the potential threat. Do you fight it? Do you flee or freeze?

Since I’m hiking behind you, I see the change in your behavior and demeanor, but I haven’t yet seen the bear so I don’t know that you are perceiving a threat. From a behavioral standpoint, this is often the case. We see the way someone behaves, but we don’t see why they are behaving in that way. Given how society tends to respond to behavior, I might start judging you and saying:

“What’s wrong with you?”
"Are you mad at me?"
“Calm down.”
“Why are you being difficult?”
“Do you just not want to go for a hike?”
“Stop trying to control the situation.”
“This is unacceptable behavior.”
“Can you just communicate in a courteous and polite manner?”
“You’re just trying to get attention.”
“Maybe you need a timeout, or meds, or therapy, or a behavior plan.”

But in this moment, when you’re faced with an actual bear, your responses aren’t manipulative or controlling or difficult. Your behavior is quite logical and natural and human. If I blame you for your behavior, at the very least you’d be frustrated with me. And rightfully so - I would be a terrible hiking companion and a terrible friend. If you could, you yell at me that there's a bear, but spoken language can often be lost in high-stress situations. Likewise, telling you to calm down would not have the desired outcome, because never in the history of being told to calm down has someone calmed down. In essence, now you have two threats and that only serves to escalate your distress.

How many times do we see a child or adult who is struggling and treat them the exact same way? What we so often miss is that behavior is communication, a response. Behavior itself is never the problem. It’s letting us know that there is a deeper challenge that a person is responding to. Behavior is a light on the dashboard telling us whether a person feels safe or not. If our lives involve interaction with other people, we are certain to encounter difficult behaviors, whether it’s parents, children, teachers, friends, co-workers, bosses, or even random strangers out in the world. I truly believe people are always doing the best they can, and if they're not behaving at a level we believe them able to behave at, the question isn’t “What’s wrong with you?” but rather, “What is happening to you?” The question we must ask is, “What is driving behavior?”

People aren't giving us a hard time; they're having a hard time.

I've discovered, as I've researched this over the years, that principle extends to adults as well. Sometimes people don’t have the language to explain what they are experiencing or explain their distress. Sometimes, in the moment, language fails them. Some people are not self-aware enough to understand what they are experiencing or why they are behavior the way they are. Sometimes, Emotional Flashbacks, coined by Pete Walker[2], get in the way. Sometimes people are reacting from childhood wounds, often without even realizing those wounds exist. With a child, depending on their age, the prefrontal cortex in their brain may not even be developed enough for regulation or control. And when we can't talk it out, we act it out.

So often when encountering difficult behavior, people tend to respond with anger or frustration because they don’t understand it so they try to control it and make it go away. They center their own discomfort with the behavior instead of focusing on the distress and wellbeing of the other person. A lot of behavior is deemed attention seeking because that’s how it feels to the person experiencing the behavior, but attention-seeking behavior does not exist. Attention-seeking behavior is really connection-seeking or comfort-seeking or safety-seeking or sensory-seeking or reassurance-seeking to fulfill a very real need the person has at that moment. A child might ask you the same question 20 times in a row even though you’ve already given them an answer. At that point, it's important to understand that it is no longer about the question - the child is seeking something deeper. We always need to look for the bears. We need to get curious and start exploring the roots of behavior, to look for what is driving the behavior, and to respond with compassion and support. Often, they're having a hard time. How can we help them through that? Because when we understand what is driving behavior, it leads us to compassion and support, not anger or frustration. And when we understand the underlying neurological factors at play (CHAPTER REFERENCE), we can appropriately respond to and support someone in distress.

When we fail to appropriately respond to someone’s need or distress, we tend to perpetuate the very challenge the person is experiencing. Bad behavior only exists from the external observer context. We need a shift to understand what the individual themselves is experiencing.

Will you look for the bears?

Excerpted from the upcoming book, "Looking for Bears: The Science of Feeling Safe and Why It Really Matters" by Steve Andrews

© Steve Andrews, All Rights Reserved.

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[1] Porges S. W. (2007). The polyvagal perspective. Biological psychology, 74(2), 116–143.

[2] Walker, P. (2013). Complex ptsd: From surviving to thriving: A guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. Createspace.