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The Hurricane in Your Brain: Why Panic is the Perfect Teacher


Instead of fixating on the news about Hurricane Irene all weekend, I decided instead to check out the natural disaster going on inside of my brain: the feelings, sensations and thoughts that go along with panic and fear, and what they could possibly teach us.


Just three days ago it seemed certain that a category 2 hurricane would make it’s way up the Eastern Seaboard and unleash it’s wrath upon New York City by Sunday at high noon. The public was being bombarded  with news about evacuation and possible flooding. The mayor was advising New Yorkers to have a “go bag” ready in the event of an emergency and to fill our bathtubs with water since normal plumbing might not be possible (Eew). The subway system was shut down on Saturday, major retailers closed their doors, and there were no flashlights or D batteries to be found anywhere in Manhattan.


By late afternoon on Friday, the local highbrow grocery store was overrun with people stocking up on water and other emergency essentials (which in my neighborhood means $30/lb hand sliced Nova Salmon, organic pitted Kalamata olives with red pepper flakes, American artisan cheeses, and French truffles sprinkled with cocoa powder).


Initially the photographer in me intended to approach this whole public panic thing like a roving reporter--carefully noticing and recording the eccentricities of some foreign culture so that I might learn a few things about how “other people” dealt with such primal, mortal emotions. In fact I was quite impressed with myself and how calm and collected I was about the whole hurricane situation.


But by Friday evening I was getting swept up in the flurry of dire media reportage that repeatedly reminded everyone that Hurricane Irene could very well leave us without water, transportation, and electricity.


This hurricane business was serious.


During my second trip to the fancy grocery store, while filling my shopping cart with staple foods like bread, canned beans, and peanut butter, along with some not-so-staple foods like cookies, ice cream, tortilla chips, and beer, I once again attempted to use this unusual opportunity to carefully observe everyone around me in the hopes that I could learn a little something about fear.


As I looked around with great curiosity at the stressed out shoppers grasping for bottled water, toilet paper, bread, peanut butter, and thinly sliced Imported Serrano Ham, I realized that all of the tension and worry and impatience I saw in their faces was nothing more than a reasonably accurate reflection of what was going on in my own mind.


When I got real with myself I noticed that I was more nervous than I was allowing myself to feel. Once I allowed myself to experience my fear instead of pretending I was somehow immune to it, I was able to relate to it differently and relax. 


When I eased into my panic and let it be for a while, it began to dissipate and then I discovered what a great teacher fear really is.


The first thing I learned from these displays of panic and fear is how much we all truly want to stick around. The desire to live is quite strong within most of us. Even when things seem awful, even when we bitch and moan about money or our living situations or our careers, we seem to intuitively know that our lives have some inherent value and meaning. There is something downright precious about these remarkable breathing bodies of ours, and the idea that something could potentially harm them is deeply unsettling to us. 


The second thing I learned is that caring for ourselves and others comes rather naturally. While we don’t always do it easily or willingly, there is this fundamentally helpful part of ourselves that can operate quite easily when we move out of the way and let it do it’s thing. Sometimes it takes an emergency to help this side of us kick in. Over the weekend at the crowded grocery store I saw several examples of people trying to help each other in all kinds of ways. And I realized that everyone there was either loading up on supplies so they could provide for themselves or for the people they care about. Everyone at that store had at least one person that really mattered to them or they wouldn’t have been there.


The third thing panic taught me is how changeable this world is. It’s easy to be complacent, to fall into a routine, and to take every aspect of our lives for granted. But with very little or no notice at all, the conditions of our lives can change drastically. And this is good news when it comes to depression and anxiety because they too have a life span. Everything is in a constant state of flux and nothing illustrates this better than the weather.


The fourth thing I learned from fear and panic is how unsubstantial all of our thoughts and feelings are in the first place. A whole lot goes on in our minds between the time we initially perceive something and the thoughts and emotions we experience as a result.  While these thoughts and feelings seem so real and solid, they’re just conditioned responses created by association, habit, and reinforcement. That’s why it’s so important to learn how to work with our minds: so we don’t end up working for them.


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Every now and then, try to get your hurricane brain on by remembering the lessons that panic and fear can teach us: that your life is precious, you and other people deserve care and consideration, all things are changeable, and thoughts and feelings are fleeting and unsubstantial so there’s no point in being controlled by them. Remembering these four points can help you to cultivate a genuine sense of gratitude and appreciation for your life, and then it gets easier and easier to live with sanity, happiness, and compassion.


Parting suggestion: if you have lots of extra water, food or supplies that you won’t be consuming in the next week or so, please consider donating to a local shelter or food distribution program. If you’re in New York City it won’t take a lot of effort to find someone without a home who could use some of what many of us now have too much of.

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