From Red to Red Light

Put your life on hold
An open path
With nowhere to go
You start to wonder
While sitting at a red light

– Johnny Lang

Our responses to events that trigger us can come on so fast it can seem as if we are hardwired that way. Regardless of where we learned our style, or what events provoke responses as if a switch has been flipped when we’re “in the red,” learning to find the pause button between stimulus and response grants us time to sort out what’s really going on when our amygdala is hijacked. That awareness cultivates a muscle to help you get curious in those moments to learn more and choose how you want to respond.

While creating that pause for ourselves (and our relationships) is important, doing so when your switches have been flipped isn’t always easy. Hair trigger responses can take time to undo, so do long and hard-learned ways of reacting to the world. Learning to find our pause button can be a game-changer for our self, our relationships, and our companies.

In her book, Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin notes that the only difference that’s obvious to the naked eye between human and animal brains is the increased size of the neocortex in humans. (The neocortex includes the frontal lobes as well as all of the other structures where higher cognitive functions, like reason and language, are located.) The lower level structures of the brain — such as the amygdala which are the seat of emotions and life support functions in both people and animals – look identical. She writes:

“Comparing animal brains to human brains tells us two things:

Number one: animals and people have different brains, so they experience the world in different ways–

and

Number two: animals and people have an awful lot in common.”

“To understand why animals seem so different from normal human beings, yet so familiar at the same time, you need to know that the human brain is really three different brains, each one built on top of the previous at three different times in evolutionary history. And here’s the really interesting part: each one of those brains has its own kind of intelligence, its own sense of time and space, its own memory, and it’s own subjectivity. It’s almost as if we have three identities inside our heads, not just one.”

When I’m working with my horse, I often feel that I’m working with the parts of the human brain we often forget about, such as those parts that evolved well before the prefrontal cortex. We may pretend we have evolved past this primitive neurology, but that’s just our wordy-language and abstractly rational side making up stories.

For the equine nervous system, new experiences with unknown things can be perceived as a death sentence, and therefore, a be very scary happenstance. Sometimes this instinct kicks in with something seemingly benign to us two-leggeds, like a plastic bag or newspapers blowing in the wind. The horse that can venture into the unknown and manage his own reaction of fear to whatever scary things lie ahead, can lead the rest of the herd through whatever it is that’s terrifying (if they haven’t run away already).

While working on loading my horse into the horse trailer this fall, I was guided  by a local horsewoman who referred to the ability for the horse to manage his reactions as “getting his butterflies in order.” The horse that can manage his butterflies in a herd, however, can lead the rest of the herd through the new situation. For a horse to be able to do organize his butterflies, he has to learn to pause versus react when those survival (flight, fight, freeze) instincts loom large. Once a horse can learn to master a pause that allows him to shift from fear to curiosity about how to move forward (or not), he can turn to his human for support, and thus becomes a good partner with his human (versus being so lost in fear that he forgets he’s got a human partner with him, which can lead to dangerous scenarios. Something you want to avoid when working with a 1200-pound animal with a well-evolved survival response.).

The equine brain operates only slightly differently than ours with less prefrontal cortex. We have our own versions of reactions to plastic bags. We can also learn to help ourselves get our butterflies in order when we have a strong emotional reaction to something blowing in (or seemingly blowing up in) our path thanks to a bit more gray matter where it matters.  

When it comes to learning how to insert a pause to our highly emotional responses, we have to learn to exercise the pathway to our higher brain functions, which can add seconds to process the trigger as we mull over the events that just happened. Otherwise, the stimulus comes in and the amygdala – the part of our brain responsible for survival mechanisms – generates our response in lightning-fast time. By lessening our reactivity and giving us time to choose a wise action, the ability to take a pause can not only abort an amygdala hijack moment but avoid one altogether.

To be clear, tending to our somatic Lepidoptera swarms as humans doesn’t involve suppressing our feelings. It involves mastering our own ability to pause between stimulus and response. When something happens (stimulus) we’re charged to react (in a way we may or may not be proud of). If we stop to check in with ourselves about what is happening, and how we’d like to move forward or not, we create space — or a red light moment as Johnny Lang’s lyrics point to where you stop to wonder, with nowhere to go. As Jerry discusses with Nicole Glaros in this podcast, when we mind this gap, we build our own resilience with whatever metaphorical newspapers and plastic bags we encounter.

As humans, the only things we can control are our choices and actions. The ability to respond with aplomb versus a bomb of a reaction can create openings instead of closings, space for curiosity as opposed to rigid stances. It gives us a chance to pause and wonder about what’s going on for us before reacting hot and fast.

Thomas Moore writes, “How many times do we lose an occasion for soul work by leaping ahead to final solutions without pausing to savor the undertones? We are a radically bottom-line society, eager to act and to end tension, and thus we lose opportunities to know ourselves for our motives and our secrets.”

A red light moment gives us a chance to evaluate – even just a little – What just happened? What am I feeling? What is important to me right now? What do I need? What am I willing to ask for? Widening the gap between stimulus and response is a practice that gets easier with use.

Taking care and taking charge of our butterflies gives us a chance to check in with ourselves and how we’re doing. This is a form of tending to, one of self-care and discovery. By leaning into those spaces in ourselves, we open up the opportunity to meet others and life from a more generative and generous place. We find our growth and freedom when we can heed that space.