Habitual Emotional Response

Habitual Emotional Response


This morning, while driving my daughter to the first day of school after the holidays, I heard a story on the radio about how much our environment influences our habits, and as such, the role it plays in our addictions.  The story began with the discussion of the high rate of Heroin addiction among soldiers serving in Vietnam.  At the time it was believed that once someone was addicted to heroin, it was almost impossible to break this habit. However, the government instituted a policy of getting soldiers clean before they shipped them back to the US. When the soldiers were studied one year later, it was found that only 5% had relapsed.
The scientist who ran the study was attacked as a partisan hack, but it seems that the data held up. As the piece points out,

According to Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology at the University of Southern California who researches behavior change, in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s scientists thought that if you wanted to change behavior, the key was to change people’s goals and intentions.

“The research was very much focused on trying to understand how to change people’s attitudes,” Wood says, “with the assumption that behavior change would just follow.”

However, over time the focus of behavioral change expanded to encompass other factors such as how our environment and our relationships affect our actions and responses. 40 years later, psychologists understand the amazing lack of relapse through the lens of this changed environment.  With further study, psychologists came to see that approximately 45% of the actions that we perform each day are things that we do every day.  Brushing our teeth, getting in a car, and getting the mail become essentially automatic, requiring very little present attention. We do these things mindlessly, which takes away a little bit of our control.  When we are unaware of the powerful pull of our unconscious patterns, we start to accept these patterns as innate and unchangeable.

The reason that the radio was focusing on the story was its connection to the idea of New Year’s resolutions. It hinted that perhaps one of the reasons so many people fail in their New Year’s resolutions is that the habits that they’re trying to change are ones that are automatic and heavily influenced by their environments.  For example, it might be hard for someone to quit drinking coffee if their daily commute not only brings them past their usual coffee stop, but also surrounds them with people drinking coffee.   Or, if someone is used to taking a cigarette break in front of their place of work, simply entering the building triggers an unconscious desire to smoke.

While we are often aware of some of our habits, including those that we want to change, there are many others that we are simply unconscious of.  Some of these habits are physical, like walking the same path to the bus each day. However, when we take a deeper look, we can see that we also have unconscious habitual emotional responses.  Further, these responses often drive our physical responses and vice versa.  When emotional responses happen automatically, it is often difficult for us to become aware of them.  However, once we become aware, we have the opportunity to change them. People often think about “the power of positive thinking” as something magical, or unscientific. However there is a lot of data that our habitual negative thought patterns can cause us to be in more pain and discomfort. The answer isn’t to repress the negative thoughts but instead examine them- and the pattern of thinking them. When we see the patterns, and start to understand how they formed we can start to unwind them. In some ways we think negatively because it feels like it protects us from disappointment. However, there is a lot of data illustrating how it harms our health.

About a year and a half ago, my wife and I moved out of Brooklyn and into my childhood home in North Carolina. There were a myriad of reasons why we made the move and changing our patterns was one of them.  We wanted to make space to work differently, and make space to finish our film. While we have made progress towards working differently, we haven’t made major strides towards finishing the film. However, moving did help us to find ways of living a much simpler and calmer life, which made space for becoming more aware of many of our automatic behaviors. I’d like to think I’ve become a better husband, father, and friend in the process. I know that in some ways I’ve also become a little bit more difficult one as well. In the past, I reacted much more automatically than I do now, responding in expected ways to expected behaviors.  When we break the patterns of our relationships it creates challenges, especially if we ask others involved in those relationships to change with us.

Just now, as I was writing this, on my first work-day of the year, I felt a shot of hot adrenaline in my stomach.  I’m not exactly sure what it was my body was responding to, but I do know that I am stressed out about a myriad of different pressing responsibilities. I closed my eyes, focused on my breath and tried to be aware of my emotions. The nerves passed quickly, but I expect they’ll make themselves known a few more times today.  Just as we fall prey to habitual cravings for drugs, we also can form habitual physical responses to stresses that manifest themselves as pain or illness.  When we fail to recognize the connection we have a very limited ability to fix the problem.  However, when we pay attention to both our emotional and our physical responses we can begin to change the patterns.  I was conscious of the different stresses as well as my physical responses and mentioned to my wife that I was a bit stressed, so she sent me this paragraph she’d just read in Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth”.

The pain-body doesn’t want you to observe it directly. The moment you observe the pain-body, feel its energy field within you and take your attention into it, the identification is broken. A higher dimension of consciousness comes in. It is called Presence. You are now the witness or the watcher of the pain-body.

Here are three ways to observe and dissolve the pain-body:

    •    Watch out for any sign of unhappiness in yourself in whatever form—it may be the awakening pain-body. This can take the form of irritation, impatience, a somber mood, a desire to hurt, anger, rage, depression, a need to have some drama in your relationship, and so on. Catch the pain-body the moment it awakens from its dormant stage.
    •    Observe the resistance within yourself. Observe the attachment to your pain. Be very alert. Observe the peculiar pleasure you derive from being unhappy. Observe the compulsion to talk or think about it. The resistance will cease if you make it conscious.
    •    Focus attention on the negative feeling inside you. Know that it is the pain-body. Accept that it is there. Don’t think about it—don’t let the feeling turn into thinking. Don’t judge yourself out of it. Stay present, and continue to be the observer of what is happening inside you.

If our habitual emotional response is negative and judgmental, then it follows that we are manifesting an addiction to negative thinking.   I had a bit of a fight with my mom about this exact issue the other day.  She wanted me to know about the review of a book that poked holes in the ideas behind the power of thinking positively.  She was excited by it because, as she told me, she was recently frustrated by an acquaintance in her retirement community who told her that she needed to think more positively.  While my mom can be very supportive, she also is a very anxious person, who tends to worry about what can go wrong. I tend to be somewhat optimistic, but I don’t think I am unreasonably so.  I certainly don’t finish everything I start, but I do have a pretty good track record of finishing projects with minimal support.  As such, I am aware of how imagining the worst isn’t all that helpful.  I am also aware that I have both a physical and emotional response to my mother’s unconscious anxiety response.

As I have been thinking a lot about balance in relation to the Tolle’s ideas above, I had an emotional response to the discussion with my mother that wasn’t all that positive. I told her that I hadn’t read the review, or heard about the book, but still had a sense that ideas related to positive thinking get overgeneralized and dismissed.  I went on to say that I imagined that the book was probably pretty evenhanded, but that the writing about the book probably was less so.  In any case, we ended up having an argument that had much more to do with our emotional patterns than it did with the book, or the ideas contained therein.  In the process, I had plenty of physical responses as well.  Luckily, my glasses survived their visit to the closet door.  Old habits die hard.  In the end, we were able to talk through things and learn from the discussion, but it wasn’t easy.  It would have been impossible if we weren’t both committed to being more aware and changing the unproductive patterns.

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