The part of your brain (and all animals’ brains, really) that is responsible for your “Fight or Flight” instincts scientists have nicknamed the “reptilian brain.” It’s what is always on alert for an “attack” and identifies what is in “lack.” While it was useful back in humankind’s earliest history to survive, in our current culture it is the major source of stress and anxiety. It screams: “There is not enough ______” and “Something terrible is about to happen!”
And when we believe it, we suffer.
One of Martha Beck’s tools (from Steering By Starlight) is to identify and name your “inner lizard”*…and learn to observe when (s)he is telling us painful stories.
My inner lizard is named Tucker, after my dog, because he emulates it perfectly. He is a rescue mutt, who we had DNA tested and learned that he is a mix of guard dog breeds (Shar-pei, Ridgeback, German Shepherd, Doberman Pincher, Akita, Am-Staff, and a few others).
When he was a puppy, we lived in a condo with only a few windows that were too high for him to see out of. When Tucker turned three, we moved into a split-level townhouse with high ceilings and practically floor to ceiling sliding doors and windows on three sides. None of which had window treatments. It was only then that we learned how loudly and frequently he can bark.
Tucker immediately perched himself on the top of the stairs where he could maximize his view out two directions (and it was hard to coax him away from the spot where he could be on full alert). Every bird flying past, and every neighbor on a balcony or coming out to get mail was a threat that was met with hysterical barking, hackles up, and running from window to window to window like a crazed maniac.
If he could talk, I imagine it would have sounded like:
“Alert! Alert! Alert! Quick, save the women and children! We are under siege! AHHHHHHHH! Bar the doors and windows! Man the weapons! We’re under attack!”
It’s funny the first time. When it happens 50+ times a day, it’s exhaustingly frustrating.
And in fact, the first month we were in our new home, it disturbed Tucker so much and he was on such heightened alert that he had uncontrollable diarrhea, wouldn’t sleep and he refused to leave his post (even and especially at night while his family slept). Before that, he was always be by our side no matter what room we were in.
He became so panicked, that the noise of closing a drawer or setting down a glass would send him on a tailspin of maniacal barking and tearing around the house to determine where the invasion was occurring.
So we spoke with a few different dog behavioralists and their recommendations were the same. When he goes into a barking spree, catch his attention and call him over (don’t go to him or it re-enforces the behavior and even escalates it). Ask him to “down” and lovingly give him a reward of petting and treats. I was amazed at the results.
Now when a neighbor is out in their garage or a kid is riding her bike around the units, and he starts barking, I firmly but lovingly say, “Tucker here.” (Sometimes it takes a few tries to get his attention.)
He will then grumble bark while walking toward me, head slightly bowed like, “But, but, but…there’s people out there, Mom!”
When his nose touches my outstretched open palm, I say, “Tucker down.” And he crumbles at my feet, relaxed, and lets out a sigh. I pet him and coo a gentle, “Shhhh…it’s ok. There, there. Shhhh…” If I’m sitting on the couch, he will fall asleep at or on my feet.
I have acknowledged there are people outside, but I don’t believe that they’re going to attack us. He’s done his job in alerting me, and now he can rest and relax.
Within a few weeks, his irritated bowels recovered and he began sleeping upstairs in his bed in our bedroom again. Heck, he started sleeping again, which was a big win.
The reality of it is. We all have an inner Tucker. It believes its sole purpose is to protect us. And in a very rare occasion where a real emergency warrants an alert, it will be there fully rested and able to react clearly. All other times, we simply need to acknowledge him, and then lovingly and calmly pet him into rest.
*Inner Lizard is a concept developed by Martha Beck, Inc. Copyright, Martha Beck, www.marthabeck.com