Sometimes my computer won’t let me do something I am fairly sure is right. I keep repeating the steps I know and it keeps stopping the process. Cooler heads have told me to step away at such times or turn the computer off and on again. Even though I know these strategies work, I keep on trying. When I’m in the grip of frustration, the last thing I want to do is back away. My reflex is to double down and try the wrong thing harder.
Walking away goes against my every instinct in those moments. Not only am I sure I can figure it out, I also see my stick-to-itiveness as a virtue. But one day, I realized that I wasn’t feeling so good: my laser focus felt hot and driven as I kept pouring determination into what wasn’t working. That’s when I figured out that I was drunk on adrenaline.
That hot feeling is where the phrase “working feverishly” comes from. It means that adrenaline is flooding your system and you are gearing up for a fight. I was nowhere near a big predator, but I was ready for battle. And it wasn’t the virtues of perseverance and gumption I was feeling. It was stress. I was scared because I really didn’t know how to fix the problem.
Adrenaline convinced me that, if I applied myself, I would come out on top. Certainty is one of adrenaline’s calling cards. Once adrenaline takes over our system, we think we’ve got a hundred-percent chance of winning even if we’re dead wrong. It’s what happens in road rage or shopping on Black Fridays. Suddenly our fear makes us someone who has to win at all costs. Later we might wonder what got into us. But really it was about what was already in us: adrenergic reactions making us crave victory and payback.
Adrenaline eliminates helplessness, but sometimes to our great detriment because it induces tunnel vision. We feel powerful but lose sight of the larger context. Suddenly that guy who cut us off needs to be taught a lesson. Suddenly my computer is faulty and must be overcome. Proving ourselves right becomes the most important thing. Later we sober up and take stock of the harm we’ve caused ourselves and others.
Back in reality—unaffected by adrenaline—the bigger picture beyond the tunnel vision continues to exist just outside our line of sight. When we realize the other driver that we looked daggers at is actually someone we know, reality crashes back in and we are ashamed of losing our cool. When I get away from the computer long enough to think more clearly, I’m embarrassed that I got so upset.
Imagine how things could be if we realized up front that adrenaline makes us lose the forest for the trees, and then turn it into a wasteland. The toxic combination of fear, fight, and certainty pits us against other people in ways that are hard to come back from. The more surges of adrenaline you feel, the less likely you are to question yourself. That’s because adrenaline wipes out self-doubt. When you are high on adrenaline, you never question the need to fight or the certainty that you will win.
But I’m beginning to wake up. Now when my temperature rises, I know to go for a walk. Not only does it make me feel better, but I’m able to expand my tunnel vision and open up to new solutions that might actually work.
Try it out. The next time you get that warm rush that tells you that you are right and must win, snap out of it. You’re intoxicated by adrenaline. Walk away, step outside, look at the sky, and release that whoosh of adrenaline that will leave you exhausted. In other words, realize what’s happening to you. You’re about to sacrifice a relationship, a project, or your own safety just to indulge your adrenaline. If you do that with the wrong person or at the wrong time, there will be a price.
Reality takes over where adrenaline leaves off. So know your cues and back off. The fight is almost never worth it. There is another way to deal with things, but you won’t see it as long as adrenaline keeps telling you you’re right.