June 10, 2011 Post: How does one manage indelible stress patterns?

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Over the past two weeks, I have presented one of the key dilemmas that challenge the freedom to choose our actions, to think the way that we want, and to manage our emotions.    During personal stress, we become automatic and rigid, and we regress to familiar response patterns, whether or not they meet the needs of current situations.  These responses are not only indelible, but they will also remain the most familiar, no matter how much we practice new ones.

What to do?  Actually, there are three different types of solutions, depending on the variety of stress behavior.  So, the first question we have to ask ourselves is whether the rigid stress response is:

  1. adult based, that is, not learned in childhood, but just very familiar.   (Hint:  It is more likely to be an automatic behavior than a belief.)
  2. self-protective, in the sense that it is left over from our childhood tool-kits for emotional survival.  (Hint:  It’s more  likely to be accompanied by an “always” or “never” belief.)
  3. addictive, which means that the behavior is not only rigid but also alluring.  (Hint:  It spills over from stressful times to the rest of  our lives, generating its own stress along the way.)

This week, I will focus on the simplest of the three, which is the first.  In weeks to come, I want to explore the other two.

Due to the nature of our brains’ response to stress (see last week’s blog), the wrong reaction can keep coming up each time it most matters  to us.  This can be  disastrous for those in high-stress occupations and quite miserable for the rest of us.  Our  distress over this frustrating situation only increases the rigidity.

Happily, we can actually use the stress response to help us.   Think of it this way:   if we want to make certain that we find something, we would put it where we are most likely to be.    Where will we be when we are stressed?  We will be stuck in the stress-regress pattern!  Accordingly, our best option would be to stash the preferred response right with the familiar response.

Here is the key:  When it comes to the brain, you cannot subtract but you can add.  In other words, although we cannot erase old patterns, we can chain new learning directly onto them, with repetition.

For example, imagine that you know how you would prefer to react in any situation, such as  with better listening to your business or romantic partner.

  • First, you practice the new listening strategy until it is readily available, at least when you are not stressed.
  • Second, specifically recall past arguments, which will bring up the old, rigid response.
  • Third, practice the new skilled listening and act it out when a bit stressed from those memories.  You can start with recollections of small conflicts and move gradually up to the more excruciating versions.
  • Finally, imagine a future argument and practice moving into the new skill.  Depending both on the novelty of the skills and the stressfulness of the situations, the practice period might be as short as an hour or  as long as many weeks.

The effectiveness of this approach comes from managing the stress-regress by actually applying its rigidity.  In contrast, role-plays without increasing stress will not be as helpful, even if keeping the same people in mind.  The gradually ascending distress is what  makes  the chaining-effect occur.

With such practice, if the rigid patterns of response are what we called “adult based” above, it should start to change.  On the other hand, if  it does not, this is our cue to move to the second possibility, because it comprises a self-protective childhood learning.  If so, we have other options, which I will explore with you next week.

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This entry was posted on Friday, June 10th, 2011 at 1:21 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

3 Responses to “June 10, 2011 Post: How does one manage indelible stress patterns?”

  1. Cindy Says:

    This idea sounds similar to using a filing system to me. The idea here is to file a new response along with the old one, so in a given situation, and after some time “practicing” we could refer to that file and access/use the new response. At first, this technique would be a conscious choice. By slowing our reactions down enough to step back a moment and refer to the “file” and use the new information, takes a real commitment to creating the change we would prefer. We would be building a new behavior pattern by adding the new to the old. That file would hold all the information stored there changing the actual behavior. Old + new = change. Sounds simple but not easy.

  2. Dr. Rick Blum Says:

    Yes, you are describing the process well. Your adding the point about simple but not easy reminds me of so much of how intentional change happens. In this case, the good news is that, in time, the switch to the new response will become automatic too. The challenge is that we have to intentionally think about uncomfortable times in order make this new connection — not anyone’s first preference!

  3. anxiety Says:


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