You might find yourself frozen with fear or screaming loudly. Perhaps you might discover a previously untapped ability to sprint like Usain Bolt. Or perhaps you will grab a makeshift weapon and prepare to do battle. Reactions vary, but all are occur as a result of our instinct to survive.
I first used the metaphor of a tiger in workshops designed to help teachers understand more about their students’ anxiety. I explained how all manner of environmental cues can become the equivalent of seeing real tigers. As such, a student’s extreme stress and anxiety becomes an understandable reaction to what initially seems to be an inconsequential event to the teacher. We can become more sympathetic once we realise that, for some people, some events can feel very equivalent to ‘tiger sightings’.
Following one workshop Gary, a primary school teacher, described a particularly anxious student named Jake. Jake was extremely fearful about talking in class. He refused to say anything during discussions and sometimes avoided school entirely. Jake was both relieved and reassured when Gary shared the tiger metaphor with him. He was relieved that his teacher finally understood the depth of his anxiety, and reassured to know that his reactions were in fact healthy responses to perceptions of danger. The problem that Jake had was not his understandable reaction to fear, but rather the fact that he perceived there to be a ‘tiger in the room’ when asked to speak in public.
The power of human imagination, coupled with our ability to think ahead, allows us to function at an extraordinarily high level compared with other living things. However, this ability also means that we learn to live and react in response to our perceptions and thoughts as much as, if not more than, the actual events around us.
In both real life and within our imagination, if we perceive there to be a tiger in the room, we get scared and we freeze, take flight or fight. As humans, instead of physically freezing, we mentally freeze, instead of running away to hide, we avoid; and instead of actually fighting, we tend to swear and get angry.
Some students may see a tiger at a social event or within a misplaced comment from a friend. For others the sports carnival has a decidedly furry look. The tigers in our lives lurk at the heart of our late night worries and diminish our capacity for everything else in life. It is no wonder we perceive our abilities to be increasingly small when faced with such perceptions of threat, for they are understandably compromised by our need to survive.
It makes sense to pay attention to a life threatening tiger that has just entered the room. However, the more thought we give to the things and events that we ‘perceive’ to be frightening, the more scared we generally become. This occurs because when we are stressed or fearful, our thoughts are often unhelpful and unhealthy. For example, we may catastrophise (if I fail this test, I must be completely stupid) or find ourselves involved in black and white thinking (If I make a mistake in the presentation, it will be ruined)
So, why do unhealthy thoughts have so much power over us? Moreover, why do we so easily let them spiral out of control? The simple answer to these questions lies in the fact that so many of our chattering thought patterns have become ingrained and automatic habits. This means we rarely become aware of unhealthy thoughts until we are experiencing a strong emotional reaction such as stress or distress.
Do this exercise. Try to not finish the following sentence in your head: ‘Twinkle, twinkle little …’
If you grew up in the Western world, how hard was it to keep the word ‘star’ out of your mind? When our thoughts are ingrained habits, we have little or no control over them and consequently they have a very powerful influence over us.
In contrast, the more we become aware of our unhealthy thoughts and their negative, irrational nature, the more we can learn to turn our attentions to healthier alternatives. For example, we could change a thought about “our presentation being a ‘complete disaster’ because we stumbled over our words at the start” to the healthier “I may not have delivered my presentation perfectly but I still managed to make some good points”.
Ultimately the fastest way to disengage with an unhealthy thought is to focus on a healthy more balanced one. The more we habitually turn our attention to healthier more balanced ways of looking at life, the calmer and happier we will be, no matter what furry beasts are heading our way.
Dr Helen Street is an education consultant, author, presenter and chair of The Positive Schools Initiative. Positive Schools 2017 is getting ready to launch and already open for registrations