Curiosity is an individual, relational, and global détente mechanism.
Pamela J. Reed, MA, LPCC
To be curious means to be open to knowing what is transpiring in any given moment, whether it is in the present or the past. Transpire, comes from two Latin words: trans, meaning “through” and spirare, meaning “breathe”. If we breathe through moments by being present, we can engage our curiosity. This is especially important in our relationships with ourselves and others. A lack of curiosity can breed indifference, discord, injustice, and feelings of irrelevance. In this post, I will review three ways that curiosity can help us improve our management of personal anxiety, relationship with others and relationship with the world.
On the individual level, what does it mean to be curious about ourselves? One of the first steps in therapy is to increase self-awareness. A therapist acts as a mirror, for people to see themselves through the eyes of another. This act of reflection is a powerful tool to open another’s awareness through a more objective framework. We must get curious about ourselves to understand the origin of our thoughts, which drive our emotions, actions, and reactions.
Anxiety is a reaction when we believe harm is imminent. Anxiety fools us by causing us to think that its presence is necessary. An example of disarming anxiety through curiosity looks like this: You feel anxious and may even feel a panic attack begin. These “attacks” present various physiological reactions, including tingling sensations in the extremities, increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, and a sense of being outside of one’s self. In that moment, for many people, fear takes over. When that happens, the sympathetic nervous system, our fight-or-flight response grabs hold of the reigns. Our brains tell our bodies there is danger and bodies respond with a flood of neurochemicals, preparing us for battle. This feeds the anxiety, keeping it alive.
Can we disarm the fight or flight response in the moment? Yes. Curiosity is one way to start the placation of fear. Be curious about what is happening. Talk to yourself. “Hmmm…I am noticing that my arms are tingling. Where is this happening in my arms? Is it moving up or down?” By asking yourself questions and being curious about what IS happening, we keep the executive functioning (i.e., “logical”) part of our brain engaged, decreasing fear and thoughts around what MIGHT happen. Keeping engaged with what curiosity lessens our anxiety. What transpires next is that we can literally breathe through the moment to calm our bodies even more.
What does it mean to be curious in our relationships with others? With our partners, our family members, our children? What if the “attack” we feel is external rather than internal? Words and actions toward us can have disastrous consequences when we allow our fear response to take over. In our most intimate relationships, intense feelings and reactions can be elicited at times. Being curious in the moment within these relationships and asking “why” questions from a place of authentic interest, can turn our relationships toward reflection rather than confrontation. This engages the brains’ executive functioning, decreasing sympathetic nervous system reactions. As parents, we can feel frustration and anger at times when our children behave in a way that does not match our values and ideas around “how it is supposed to be”. Instead, let us remember to ask “why?” in those moments, internally toward ourselves (e.g., Why am I having this strong of a reaction? Why is my child behaving in this way?) or externally toward our children (e.g., Why did you choose that behavior at that time?).
On the societal level, what does it mean to be curious about others in our community and in the world? What happens when we approach situations with curiosity rather than fear? Curiosity breeds compassion wherein a palpable weight is lifted. If we took a moment to ask questions, through the lens of curiosity, relating to whether a person poses a threat to our livelihood, our ego, our sense of safety, we can turn our fear into true interest in another. Let us be curious about one another. Perhaps curiosity is a mechanism for détente—individually within us, relationally with those we love and care about, and globally with others.