Imagine if you can, for a moment, a warehouse. A huge warehouse. Now fill this warehouse with row after row of filing cabinets. Why am I asking you to imagine a warehouse full of filing cabinets? This is the warehouse of your mind. And in this warehouse, we store all of our memories, as well as our behavioural and thought templates. Each time we think, say or do something, we are storing a file in one of these cabinets. It is key to the way we think, feel and act!
This warehouse (or hippocampus if you want to be scientific) is a part of our subconscious mind. Our subconscious gets a bad wrap a lot of the time. It is often thought to be the seat of all of our deepest and darkest desires and secrets. However, it is quite often simply misunderstood. The main role of our subconscious mind is to keep us alive. As simple as that. And it will do anything and everything it needs to, so as to keep us safe.
Now imagine a caretaker in this warehouse. This caretaker is picky and nervous, overly worried about health and safety rules. The caretaker (or our amygdala) spends his/her day running around filing. In every situation, they rush around to find the best behavioural template match, based on what is in the files. This is why what we store in our filing cabinets is so important because we frequently rely on their contents to know how to act and think in the future.
Let’s for a moment imagine a man who is petrified of spiders. When he was a little kid, his mum didn’t like spiders either, she used to scream whenever she saw one. This starts off the process of filling a filing cabinet with bits of paper saying ‘Spiders are scary.’ Throughout his life, he continues to fill this filing cabinet with sheets of paper stamped with a warning, until eventually, the cabinet gets a big red flag on top of it. This flag can be seen by the caretaker from anywhere in the warehouse, so they know to avoid that filing cabinet at all costs.
Because our caretaker is overly concerned with health and safety, and would rather not take any risks, they continue to erect flags. Before long there is a flag on the filing cabinets marked ‘Garden Shed’, ‘Attic’, ‘Hoovering’, and pretty much anywhere else where running into a spider may be a possibility. This man’s warehouse starts to look pretty cluttered, with flags popping up everywhere. He does, however, still have a large area of ‘coping space’, the areas in between all the flags, where the caretaker hasn’t yet deemed there to be a risk.
Now we add an extra layer. We also have post-it notes. In our warehouse, as in real life, post-it notes are used for those daily reminders and little niggles. ‘Call the mechanic’, ‘pick up milk’ for example. These are our stressors. But don’t be fooled by the name. Stressors, or these notes to self, are not inherently positive or negative, they are simply a driver or motivator. In general, we are not afraid of our post-it notes and can enjoy the feeling of taking down each note as we deal with the task at hand. However, they can fill our warehouse, and take energy to deal with.
Sometimes, we can have so much going on that we forget to pause and actually take down the post-it notes that we’ve already dealt with. As such our notes pile up, cluttering our warehouse and filling up our valuable coping space. We then find ourselves in a situation where we have piles of post-it notes everywhere, but the caretaker is reluctant to take any down because in all the fluster they forgot where they were up to. The idea of accidentally taking down a post-it that hadn’t been completed yet is simply too much to bear for our nervous caretaker.
So now the man finds himself in a situation where he can’t go to bed at night until his wife has hoovered the whole of the bedroom to clear any possible traces of a spider. This is not because his fear has increased, but simply because his coping space has decreased. This is the same for everyone, phobia or not. We all have that coping space, and as it fills, and as our caretaker gets more flustered and panicked, so do we. And this is how ‘stress’ comes about!
Post-it notes are normal. They are a part of our everyday lives. If we can keep them to a minimum then we are already winning! However, life does get busy, and we do make regular mental notes to ourselves. If you want to maintain your coping space and keep your caretaker as happy as a nervous wreck can be, then remember to tick things off! Take time to reflect on how far you have come, on all that you have achieved, and in the process scrunch up the completed post-its. Treat your notes as a motivator, rather than a stressor and suddenly the pile no longer seems quite so daunting…