Despite our our access to instant gratification, despite our country’s abundance of conveniences, many of us walk around in an elevated state of agitation. Why?
In Your Survival Instinct is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear and Build Resilience, Marc Schoen argues that as we continue to meet our comfort needs, our tolerance for discomfort decreases.
Schoen, an assistant clinical professor at UCLA’s Geffen School of Medicine, has collaborated with that our limbic system has a much stronger pull than our cerebral system, making it difficult for us to “turn off” our responses to threats, no matter how unlikely those threats truly are. In other words, although we humans no longer need a highly sensitive survival instinct to protect us from the threat of being attacked, our survival system is still on the constant lookout for threats to our well-being. Something as simple as a pang of hunger or an unanswered text message can set off our body’s survival instincts, causing a physical reaction that’s difficult to avoid.
Schoen gives many examples from his own clinical practice, and from his specialty in using hypnosis to handle patients’ experiences with discomfort. We as a culture, he writes, have evolved to have a low tolerance for any sort of discomfort, and now constantly seek external ways of managing such feelings instead of using them to our own advantage.
And so, in an attempt to help us manage them, Schoen spends the latter half of the book describing tools. He encourages us to view discomfort as an opportunity to empower ourselves rather than an opportunity to run and hide behind our bad behaviors.
Overall, the book gave me plenty to think about. I found myself returning to different sections for guidance and to apply some of Schoen’s suggestions to my own experiences with discomfort. That said, the first half of the book was more useful and engaging, whereas the tools and techniques that make up the second half seemed difficult to truly master without some professional guidance.
Another issue: Schoen seems to rely mostly on his own experiences with patients to validate his claims. And those patients, perhaps, are not average. I had trouble accepting that his techniques would work for patients who aren’t into hypnosis.
Still, the book provides many useful ideas, one of which is the concept of discomfort as a tool to strengthen our mental hardiness. Successful people, after all, frequently experience episodes of discomfort, but they thrive on such episodes because they have learned to master their reactions. To try to get there, it helps to acknowledge that we are all still at the mercy of our ancient biological systems. And it is empowering to realize that things like anxiety and addiction may be our body’s way of avoiding discomfort.
Since reading Schoen, I’ve found myself questioning some of my own behavior patterns, and looking for ways to be more tolerant of my own discomfort in particular situations. The book, despite its flaws, has been a great way to start thinking about everyday situations — waiting in long lines, completing tasks that I’d rather not do — and how to master, rather than succumb to, the ill-at-ease feelings that arise.
Your Survival Instinct is Killing You: Retrain Your Brain to Conquer Fear and Build Resilience
Plume, March 2014
Paperback, 272 pages