Mind & Body

Relaxing Our Threat Detector

Many of us feel exhausted by a constant sense of social risk
TIMEDecember 3, 2021

I’ve been working with a large number of people who are very often exhausted, not just from sleep problems but from their daily activities.

A lot of us are drained by being around other people, doing video meetings, going out in public, etc., so we start to avoid those activities to preserve our energy.

Setting boundaries and giving ourselves space to rest is an important thing to do. But over time, too many of these self-restrictions can leave us unable to interact with people and increase our isolation and loneliness, which only drains us more.

Here’s an email from a reader the other day:

“As a person struggling with burnout symptoms, I find it hard to resonate with the idea of antifragility and pushing your boundaries.

“That because the first step towards moving away from burnout symptoms is acknowledging your boundaries and NOT crossing over them to depletion.

“However, I am in this state of depletion for over 2 years now and it seems that trying to hold on to my boundaries has [led] to my boundaries getting closer and closer to nothingness. I can put up with less stress and excitement. I am getting weak and fragile instead of stronger.

“I would like to break this circle and slowly build some stamina.

“Where can I start?”

We start with boundaries and creating time for self-care, rest, and replenishment.

But we can also practice being more relaxed and less drained by our lives through a practice of relaxing our “threat detector.”

Let’s talk about the threat detector and how it works before we talk about the practice of relaxing it.

How the Threat Detector Works

Part of our beautiful human brain is always looking around for threats—predators, other humans that might want to attack us, and social cues that our tribe disapproves of us.

If we find any of these threats, the body tenses up against them in fight, flight, freeze, or fawn (submission) responses. It tenses up, ready to take defensive action to protect us.

That’s how it’s supposed to work, but because we’re in a modern environment, our threat detector is almost always going off. We worry about being judged by others, about not meeting the expectations of the group, about not meeting our own expectations, and so on. Email, messaging, and social media also trigger these same kinds of worries about being judged or not meeting expectations.

These scenarios leave us tense, anxious, and exhausted.

Unfortunately, shrinking our social activity may not replenish us. In fact, a sympathetic human face is one of the few things that can immediately make us feel safe in the world. In contrast, if we confine ourselves to loneliness, we reduce our ability to interact with the world and do meaningful work with others.

So rather than avoid what triggers our threat detector, we’re better off re-tuning our threat detector.

The Practice of Relaxing the Threat Detector

It’s possible your threat detector is activated at this very moment. If not, take notice of the telltale tension that alerts you that something in your environment has triggered it.

Here’s how to practice:

  • Pause. Turn your attention to your bodily sensations, and see if you can notice a place where you’re feeling tense. There might be a tightness in your chest, stomach, head, or jaw.
  • Stay. Keep your attention on the sensation of tightness for a few moments, just resting the attention gently and with openness, no judgment. You might even bring an attitude of warm compassion or friendliness toward the sensation. After all, this feeling is just trying to protect you from perceived threats.
  • Breathe. Take some deep breaths into the belly, letting yourself be filled with a sense of spaciousness with every in-breath. Then, let go of tension with every out-breath. Do this for 5 to 10 deep slow breaths, seeing if you can relax the tension a bit.
  • Change your view. This is the key: Can you change your view of the threat to something that gives you a sense of possibility, curiosity, or gratitude? If you’re with another person, instead of thinking of them as someone who might judge you, can you be curious about this beautiful being? Could you feel a sense of possibility about collaborating with them? Could you be grateful to have them in your life? Try out these kinds of views and practice seeing them as non-threatening, someone who can fill you with a sense of wonder.
  • Breathe in again. With this new view, can you breathe and relax your tension, and feel a sense of openness, connectedness, warmth, and gratitude?

This obviously doesn’t happen with a flick of a switch. It takes practice. You won’t necessarily “get it right.” That’s OK, just keep practicing. Be encouraging with yourself.

With practice, you might be able to relax in a group of people, in any meeting, and in online social interactions and messages. What would it be like to be less drained, and instead feel a sense of connection, wonder, and love for the world around you?

Leo Babauta
Leo Babauta is the author of six books and the writer of Zen Habits, a blog with over 2 million subscribers. Visit ZenHabits.net