Today I want to talk about what's behind my treatment technique called scanning.
Earlier in this blog I wrote a post called "Fight or Flight? How about neither?" In it I outlined my approach to the fight option, where I get enraged about an event in a way that suggests I'm afraid for my life, yet the circumstances of that event are anything but life threatening. My approach is first to realize I'm not in a life-or-death situation, and second, to do something other than fight in response. That's where the neither of my title comes in.
The third option is the option that arises when the organism determines he or she is not threatened, or at least, not yet. That option might be called Watchful Waiting. It involves holding off taking an immediate action to vigilantly look, listen, taste, touch, smell, investigate, explore, check things out, closely scrutinize, experiment, think, surmise, wonder.
I know you've seen animals use this option when confronted with a new creature in their environment. If the animal doesn't feel particularly threatened, it will check things out--poke or prod, sniff, provoke, closely watching what the other creature does. Sometimes the animal gets a nasty surprise in response to its investigations: the creature being poked pokes back. Other times the new creature is deemed harmless and the animal moves on.
Wild animals must often be on the lookout for predators as they go about their business. Hooved animals, for example, need to go to the watering hole to drink or bathe, so despite the good chance that they'll meet a big carnivore there, they go. But they stay vigilant, wary of the predator's approach. That heightened awareness helps them to escape when their lives are in imminent danger. They can quickly switch to fight-or-flight mode if need be. After all, they have little choice; if they stay away from the watering hole for fear of encountering a predator, they'll eventually die of thirst. So they go, but stay watchful.
Some animals have trouble striking the right balance between acting and watching. The male cardinal that visits our birdfeeder is an example. He comes to get the seeds my husband and I put out for him, but if other birds (sparrows, for instance) come to feed at the same time as he (though there's plenty of room for all), he spends most of his time fighting to keep them away and barely gets a chance to munch a seed or two in the interim. I admit that the sparrows might seem a bit intimidating in large numbers, but if the cardinal would stop fighting, he'd see that the sparrows are not going to get all the seeds and he would be able to eat his fill. He chooses fight instead of watchful waiting, and consequently, he doesn't get to eat.
The cardinal's mate, on the other hand, has figured out the sparrows are no threat. When they come to eat, she doesn't try to chase them away but instead continues eating, and then all the birds can happily eat their fill. Obviously, at some time in the past the female cardinal made the choice of watchful waiting when confronted with a possible sparrow threat, and she is the better for it, unlike her mate, who must look for a time when sparrows are nowhere in sight to eat without interruption.
Humans are no different than other animals. When confronted with a potential threat, they too must decide whether to fight, flee, or watch and wait. Of course, the choice first depends on the degree of threat. If one's life truly is in imminent danger, then action is the right choice. The trick is to assess the threat correctly.
But unfortunately, if you're a hyperalert person, bad brain chemistry can make a correct assessment difficult. For instance, if my brain is suddenly flooded with fight-or-flight chemicals, I'm going to react without thinking, even though there is no real threat to react to. Making a different decision at that point is hard, but what I should do is to immediately recognize the feeling as coming from inside myself rather than from outside and then choose to ignore it and avoid the erroneous and possibly harmful fight-or-flight response.
Once that is accomplished, the next step is to make the feeling go away, and here is where the third option, Watchful Waiting, comes into play. More on this later.