Defence, Discipline, Desire

In 2013, I was stuggling to deal with some big changes that were about to happen in my life. Although I had chosen these changes in the name of my greater happiness, I was panicking. The uncertainty that the changes were creating made me question my decisions as I craved the comfort that can be found even in the discomfort of the status quo.

What more is I felt really anxious about not having control over how things were happening. Part of the loss of control was self made. I struggled to keep unhelpful emotions in check, finding myself in a constant state of amygdala hijack. In this state, reactions are dictated by survival-based fight, flight, or freeze mode without the input of the rational brain. Most of the time, these emotional reactions have nothing to do with what's actually happening. Instead, they stem from your irrational brain matching for a fear-based pattern learned as early as when you are a foetus in your mother's womb. Not helpful.

Usually right after an episode of amygdala hijack, I would feel a slew of negative emotions about myself confirming that indeed I was hopelessly "out of control". It's a vicious cycle that, after years of therapy, I still find challenging to break.

I knew that the only real solution was to develop new patterns that would override the old ones. This takes time; there are simply no short-cuts. Psychologists say the original emotional pattern never actually goes away (although I'm not convinced because why not believe they can?). So it's really about continuously exercising a new pattern - as if it was a muscle that needed strengthening - with the goal of having the old pattern take a backseat.

I've had lots of experience training my body for athletic pursuits. In fact, at the time, I was right in the midst of pursuing my latest goal to run the NYC marathon. So I wondered, what could I draw on from physical training that could help retrain my brain? I almost instantly thought: defence, discipline, desire.


"Defence, discipline, desire" was a mantra that my CEGEP basketball coach had come up with for our team. She was an impressive woman by all accounts but especially as a coach. Kat was dedicated to pushing our team to outperform ourselves on the court and off. I had always interpreted the mantra quite literally and only within the context of basketball. But, 15 years later, I found myself breathing new life into those three simple words. They became my game plan for getting in front of my emotions. 

My desire was to stem the tide of negativity brought on by unhelpful patterns post hijack. I really embraced this goal as my best (and only) option to get to a place where I could start rewiring my brain. I knew that I wouldn't be able to address anything else if I was constantly finding myself in the equivalent of emotional hell. There is no saving someone from drowning while they are flailing about, screaming, and gasping for air. In fact, the person risks taking anyone that tries to rescue them down with them. 

They say the best offence is a good defense. So, I decided to play defense against negative emotions. I would be in a better position to move forward if I systematically shut down my opponent. Oh, guilt is creeping in because I overacted? Access denied - apologize once and move forward. What's wrong with me, why do I have to be so crazy? Access denied - not helpful, or true and I'm now moving forward. I'm a terrible human being because I don't have it all together? Access denied - you are doing just fine, keep moving forward. 

I found that when I stopped myself from dwelling on unhelpful emotions, I had more energy to focus on constructive pursuits including playing more defense. Because I was marathon training, I was acutely aware of how critical decisions were around personal energy - a valuable resource that is limited in so far as it needs to be replenished. Every "expenditure" has a cost or trade off. And, so I would literally ask myself: do I want to spend my energy crying and feeling bad for myself, or do I want to spend it going on an awesome training run that will help me get to the finish line? Duh, no brainer (usually). This new appreciation for personal energy is what helped me develop the discipline I would need to start putting in place new patterns to keep me off the path of amygdala hijack in the first place.

I often come back to this mantra in difficult times. It's been very helpful in providing a framework for having a friendly inner dialogue with myself. I say friendly because I never force myself against my will. I really think this can backfire. Sometimes I'm just having an emotional moment that needs to be. Part of "defense, discipline, and desire" is understanding that you are coaching yourself. A coach knows when to push hard, and when to step back. 


by Miriam Bekkouche

Tessa Battistin