Your Life on Autopilot

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The Art of Living Well Column – EU Jacksonville Magazine
By Kristi Lee Schatz, M.A.
published March 5, 2014

What if you could respond differently to challenging situations? If you no longer had to feel impatient in a slow check-out line, or get angry when your boss is rude to you? We’ve all had those moments of intense reaction; it’s just part of being alive. But, where do those automatic responses come from, and can they be changed?

Whether you like it or not, the majority of your life is controlled by habitual responses. Many of these response patterns are extremely adaptive, like walking, eating and driving. They require little attention because the process is committed to memory. That’s great! However, in the same way you learned how to feed, walk and clothe yourself, you also learned how to respond emotionally in certain situations. Also, communication of your feelings and your behavior in social situations, as much as they are adaptive, still function as if they are innate.

Think about it. When someone upsets you, do you think about it or does it just happen? When you get “triggered”, your mental, emotional and behavioral response is likely an automatic reaction and not a conscious choice. The reality is that life does not happen to us; it just happens and we respond. The nature of our response is ultimately up to us.

Research has shown that the human brain can process up to 11-million bits of information per second, while the conscious mind is only aware of 50 bits per second. This means that only a miniscule fraction of our awareness is present to what is actually happening, and the rest is on autopilot. This highly adaptive function allows us to develop habits that become hardwired in our brains and require little to no awareness. Not being distracted by every bit of sensory information has likely contributed to our survival as a species.

Modern psychology claims that our life experiences shape how we perceive the world around us. If we view a situation as a threat, we will create a habit of avoiding similar situations in the future. If we are unable to avoid repetitive exposure to the threat (i.e. physical or emotional abuse as a child) we will in turn develop adaptive coping mechanisms that helps us best survive the situation. Unfortunately, sometimes these learned responses can include fear of expressing our feelings, shame, emotional repression, or even disruptive outburst when threaten. These repetitive reactions become part of our habitual response process and influence how we handle stressful situations, mentally, emotionally, and physically.

We begin developing these learned responses in childhood by observing the behavior of others and through our own trial and error process. These patterns make up our personality and influence all areas of our lives. But does that mean we’re stuck with them?

Luckily, we now have an understanding of neuroplasticity, which means the brain has the capability to rewire itself through focused attention at any age. The myth about being too old to change is out the window. Sure, replacing an old habit can be challenging, but it’s not impossible. It takes a considerable amount focus, practice, and willpower, along with an understanding that you can control your responses. Patience, acceptance, and stillness are learned responses, and are no different than anger, shame, and guilt.

Living on autopilot means responding without self-awareness. Mindfulness-based practices help you regain control over your autopilot function by literally retraining your neurons to focus on the present moment. Only then can you become fully aware of your automatic reaction and make a conscious choice to stop the response. Inculcate a habit of awareness well enough, and you will let go of old patterns that are no longer helpful.

A simple way to get started is by focusing all of your attention on your breath for one minute. Observe how you respond. Does your mind wander? Can you refocus easily? If not, this should serve as a wake-up-call for how little control you have over even the small fraction of your conscious awareness. Training yourself to become mindful of the moment may just be your saving grace. What better way to feel in control of your life than to be able to turn off negative thoughts and emotional reactions in any moment? Your response can be your choice.