You want to do something differently. A new job, lose a few pounds, or many more than a few, rebound from a crisis, eat healthier, have better relationships, overcome grief, have a relationship, socialize more, read more, work out regularly, quit smoking… the list goes on and on of what changes we want, need, or have to make. Why does it seem like we always fail? Or even fail to start? Why is it so damn hard!? Blame your evolution and your brain.
There are a few things at play here. If you are alive today it is because your ancestors, from way back, knew how to survive. And way back, when we freely roamed the earth, survival usually meant figuring out how to kill what you needed to for food and avoid being killed by things that saw you as food. And once you were able to do that, keep everything the same for as long as you could… usually to around the age of 30 back then. (Admittedly, this is a serious over-simplification of the situation… but there’s no need for a research paper here.) So, you are here because you come from a line of people with a pretty well developed “fight or flight” response, combined with an ability to maintain that, and change as little as possible. Here’s where your brain comes in.
Your brain contains billions of nerve cells (neurons) arranged in patterns that organize your thoughts, emotions, behaviors, actions, and senses. This complex highway system of nerves connects your brain to the rest of your body, so communication can occur in split seconds.
Now here is where it gets interesting…
To really oversimplify the whole thing… these neurons communicate with one another by releasing a chemical (neurotransmitter) that the next brain cell absorbs. This communication process is known as “neuronal firing.” When brain cells communicate frequently, the connection between them strengthens. Messages that travel the same path in the brain over and over begin to transmit faster and faster. With enough repetition, they become automatic. Think about when you learned to drive a car… all of the individual messages and steps you took one at a time… step on the brake, shift into gear, release the brake, press the accelerator, check the mirrors, and steer the car… just to get out of the driveway! Now we can go on automatic pilot to do all of that while changing the radio station and taking a drink of coffee!
In other words,
Neurons that fire together wire together.
Another example of why auto-pilot is not where, or how, we want to live… You know that light or stop sign that you stop at every time you leave home? Or that crosswalk? Think about the last time you went that way… did you stop? Did you really, fully stop? Can you remember it with any clarity? What about yesterday? What happened?
See how fuzzy that is? That’s life on auto-pilot rather than aware and engaged with ourselves and our lives.
This is why thoughts that cause depression, anxiety, panic, obsessions, and compulsions can become so difficult to combat. We’re not even aware they are happening…. they just “are.” And along the way, these thoughts stir up emotional as well as physiological reactions. That’s why that song reminds you of “you-know-who” and all of the feelings that go with that person. That’s why it’s so hard to “make time” to go to the gym after coming straight home from work for many months and years… it’s more than a routine or a rut. It’s your brain trying to be efficient at what you’ve already been doing and keep you alive. (Or so it thinks)
This is also why you have automatic responses to words, phrases, feelings, etc.… that may or may not have anything to do with what is actually being said or by whom… somewhere in your brain the phrase, “we need to talk” has come to mean one thing and one thing only… for most people it is some sort of doom. Even if the person wanting to talk to you is actually going to deliver good news… your brain is already firing sad, mad, doom messages across your efficient networks and looking for a way out. When this happens, you can’t and won’t hear a single word that is being said.
And we all do it. We all have these automatic responses in those pathways where our brains have fired together so often that now they are wired together. The common term for these places within us is “trigger.” When [X] happens, that pathway fires and you say/do/think/feel/etc. [Y]. For example, if you eat ice cream every night around 9:00 for a while and then decide you want to watch your diet, don’t be surprised when every night around 9:00 you are craving something sweet… badly! It’s just your brain being efficient and trying to do what it thinks will keep you alive.
This is also why it is so hard to make changes. We are having to tear those wired brain cells apart like Velcro… and try to get them to fire in another direction, another path. And like it or not, we are going to have to put in real effort again and again to get that new pathway to wire together and become automatic. It’s creating a new normal, and that is never easy or comfortable in the beginning.
But knowing the mechanics of this and reminding ourselves what is happening and why can make it easier. It changes the conversation in our heads. It’s no longer “I suck, I’ll never get this” it’s “Oh yeah, my brain is used to doing it that way… let me guide it back the way I want it to go.” It also will help us be a little more self-aware and hopefully going through this world a little less on auto-pilot. And that’s a great thing no matter what we are trying to change.