Why, when you know a response pattern does not work for a situation do you repeat it? The brain is an organ of habit. Every time you respond to a challenge in life, you are often doing it at a subconscious level whilst instantly processing emotions and survival patterns learned as a child. The masses of shoppers you have to fight through to get your favorite market cheese, the disapproving look from a manager that sets you off, the tone of voice that causes you to feel that you are not good enough, the raised voice that melts your self-confidence.
Your brain gets more hooked on stress every time you feed it: A stress response becomes normal. In fact, stress is a socially-acceptable addiction that wreaks havoc on your body, relationships, mental health, family, and more.
What is stress? It is how we choose to respond to life. A psychologist on public radio recently said that stress is not real.
Two decades ago the term was rarely mentioned in daily conversations. Today, the term is everywhere. Employers are looking at ways they can help their staff manage stress through diet and exercise. Interestingly, stress is a multi-billion dollar industry. Exercise, diet, and spiritual practices help for sure. The most direct approach is how you choose to view and respond to emotionally-triggering events. So, where do we get our survival patterns from?
Our survival instincts: Back to brain basics for a moment
Your reptilian brain is the smallest, oldest part of your brain. It is the home of your state of alertness and your flight or fight response. It responds fast to your environment, sending messages through your central nervous system to increase heart and respiration rate, blood pressure, and send adrenalin to the muscles and heart in order to prepare you to survive impending danger.
Your reptilian brain sees all stress as “the lion coming to eat you.” The amygdala within the reptilian brain stores memories of emotional events. When a similar event repeats itself our conditioned response (our neural wire) becomes stronger.
Lesser events take on the lion persona: a driver who cut you off, the youngster who talked back to you, the grumpy, unresponsive colleague at work. “Moderation” is not in the reptilian brain’s repertoire.
Why am I becoming my parent when I swore I would not?
“Just when you thought you were nothing like your parents, everything you say sounds just like them. It’s almost as if you have been invaded,” Laurel Mellin, “Wired for Joy.”
70% of your attachment style (be it secure or insecure) emanates from what you learned from your parents as a child. This style forms your survival pattern, often for life. Your behaviors are classically conditioned as an emotional response in a Pavlovian way.
Childhood memories and subtle response patterns are stored at an unconscious level in your reptilian brain, often accompanied by intense emotions. You tend to respond in the way you were programmed to without being aware of what is happening.
If you are wired to process stress ineffectively, you have a tendency to manufacture stress. Resilient responses to stress are less likely. In fact, stress becomes the norm.
The best chance a child has to be wired to find joy, find a safe sanctuary to process stress, and use tools for resiliency rests with parents. All is not lost if as adults we want to change. If we find ourselves stuck in a “brain rut,” we can pay attention to our emotional stress levels and choose a more productive response, thereby rewiring our brains for a healthier outlook.
Consider a specific situation or relationship in which you find yourself cycling through the same unhealthy patterns. Perhaps you keep feeling insecure, or you keep clashing on a topic. Perhaps you cannot say “no.”
Explore: Who else in your family demonstrates your coping pattern? (Awareness is the first step to change.)
Expand: What is one thing you can do or say that would break your unproductive circuit the next time you face a similar situation? Practice this in preparation for the inevitable next time.
Evolve: How might you feel if you could successfully wire a healthier circuit? Picture yourself saying and doing what you want in order to manifest a healthier outcome for all involved.
Choose conscious aware responses to break old survival patterns.
Sheila Armitage helps individuals and organizations adopt everyday resilience practices that boost work, home, and health.