Art of Living Well – Your Life on Autopilot

WELL_zonedoutdriverWhat 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, 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. Not being distracted by every bit of sensory information has likely contributed to our survival as a species. But where did this autopilot system come from? By nature, we are creatures of habit who develop adaptive responses in order to survive.This highly successful survival function allows us to convert our experiences of the world into perceptions that determine the best way to respond to different situations. These “response patterns” are committed to our memory bank for easy retrieval, and we rely on their validity to get us through life. When we encounter a situation that resembles something we’ve experienced before, our autopilot system retrieves the file and presses play. Sometimes the response encoded on the tape is perfect for the situation, and other times it causes more harm than good. We begin developing these learned responses by observing the behaviors of others and through our own trial and error. These patterns become ingrained in 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.

About Kristi Lee Schatz