I love storms. I love the way the sky darkens and the wind starts to build. I even love the clap of thunder and the lightening strikes (as long as they aren’t too close). I love to sit outside and watch them, but of course I go inside when things get a little too intense. Why am I not afraid?
When my sisters and I were small, a particularly violent thunderstorm started developing. Terrified, we cuddled together in the kitchen with my mother, who kept trying to distract us and keep us calm. Suddenly, my mother opened the refrigerator and pulled out several cucumbers. She started slicing them, and we all sat around the kitchen table eating cucumbers and playing games. Although we still jumped at the closest lightening strikes and the loudest thunder, we kept talking, playing and eating cucumbers even after the power went out.
Later, my mother told us that she didn’t want us to be afraid of storms. You see, her mother was terrified of storms and would cower in the kitchen, tremble with each bolt of lightening, and cover her ears against the sound of thunder. Her father, on the other hand, would sit on the front porch, watch the storms and happily bellow out songs in Serbian. So, my mother had a choice. She could cower in the kitchen with my grandmother and reinforce the pattern of fear, or, she could face her own fear and sit on the porch with my grandfather and witness the storm. She chose my grandfather. The result? She lost her fear of storms.
What my mother did for us and my grandfather did for her was a simple but brilliant example of neuroplasticity. They both created an environment where we could learn new patterns of behavior in how we respond to the experience of a thunderstorm. Each one of us were able to process our own individual learning experience, not in a cognitive (thinking) way, but in a visceral, organic way. Even though we were frightened, a safe, comfortable environment was provided. The natural flexibility of our nervous systems (which is present in all of us during our entire life time) took over and showed us new and different ways to respond to the scary situation.
Life is full of unexpected storms. Sometimes the lightening can be blinding, and the thunder deafening. The sky can become so dark we feel that we may never see the sun again. But, now we know we have choices.We can cower and try to hide from them until they’re over, and live in fear of the next one. We can find someone to sit next to, and listen as they sing through them, and learn from their courage. We can have someone guide us through with grace and dignity, allowing us to learn our own strategy for weathering the storm. Trust the intelligence of your nervous system to figure out the right strategy for you, and realize that you have many options rather than being stuck in a pattern or habit that may not be serving you well.
I remember that day every time a storm comes up or I make a cucumber salad. It’s also another opportunity for me to silently thank my mother for the many gifts she gave us. Here’s the funny part: years ago I asked her, “Mummy, why cucumbers?” She replied, “It was the only thing I could find in the refrigerator!”
Be healthy! And look for the cucumbers in the storm.
Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP