But first, a little scientific detour! If you use certain neural pathways in your brain more often, they get reinforced to work better and fire faster. You can look at the brain and actually see this! For example, people who are more resilient and less prone to staying anxious, depressed, or angry tend to have stronger connections and more/stronger neural activity between their left prefrontal cortex (higher functioning conscious brain) and their amygdala (an area of the brain highly associated with experiencing emotions). The theory is that because this connection is reinforced, the conscious higher brain can actually send messages to the emotional brain to help it calm down - COOL! (To read a whole fabulous article about this from Mindful Magazine click here.)
Me being the geek/traditional chinese medicine practitioner that I am, have used these ideas for years to talk not only about brain science, but qi (chee). The qi is the energy in your body but, honestly, it doesn't really matter what paradigm you are looking at things through (east or west), the bottom line for BOTH is that the body gets used to certain patterns, sometimes healthy and sometimes not and the longer or more those patterns are reinforced, the harder you have to work to unlearn them and learn new (hopefully healthier) ones instead!
Now back to the fabulous analogy, it went something like this...
In the old timey days when things were delivered via horse and cart the horses would memorize their route. After a while, the driver would hardly have to prompt the horses at all. They would stop at the learned stops, wait an appropriate amount of time, continue on their way, make all the correct turns, and do the entire route practically on their own.
This is all well and good, but when the route was somehow changed, the horses would get VERY worked up. Ask a horse who is used to turning right every day at a certain crossroads to turn left instead... well, hold on to your hat! The driver would have to grab the reigns, hold tight, give strong commands and really consciously direct the horse in the other direction. It doesn't end there, as the horse goes down the new route it behaves in an agitated way. It is a scary thing to go down uncharted territory. (What the horse may not understand is that the new route, actually is easier... say, going left means going downhill on a smooth road, versus that old route, where going right meant going uphill on bumpy terrain.)
Do you see where this is going?
The horse, is your brain to that neurobiologist. The horse is your qi to me (okay, actually your brain and your qi to me). And this is how it is with our patterns of behavior, emotions, and responses to life. Our 'horses' get used to going a certain route, over and over, year after year. Perhaps they were learned decades ago. Patterns of things like, being a stoic scandinavian, blowing up and having a short fuse, feeling like a victim, worrying about everything, assuming if you don't do it no one will, feeling sad and overwhelmed. These are just patterns you have learned and enforced each time you experience them. These are just the patterns your qi/brain knows the best and takes off down without you having to do a thing.
So, how do you make a change?
Well, like anything awareness is key! You have to identify that this is happening and which routes your particular 'horse' keeps heading down. Then, just like those old timey horse and cart drivers, you must grab the reigns and lead your resistant, grudging horse down the path that is the one you really want to go down.
And it doesn't feel nice at first. In fact, when you first start to do this, it sucks. It feels all wrong, totally foreign, and you'll absolutely swear that the old route is, in fact, easier. That's your horse talking!
Don't listen! Hold the reigns even tighter and give yourself a big "Whoa!" It won't feel good for a while. But if you can stick with it you'll learn the new route.
Quick example. I worked with a fabulous woman, her horses had the route of, "If I don't do it, no one will," "No one will do it like I will," "I don't have time for me," and "Go, go, go!" down pat. I explained to her that one of the biggest things she could do to get in balance would be to stop behaving this way. If she could manage this, she would stop spending all her body's resources on these behaviors and have more left to go towards her real goal - becoming a mom.
She intuitively knew this was true, and because she wanted to achieve her dream of being a mom she decided to grab the reigns and really really try to go a different direction.
She stopped working crazy hours. She went to yoga or to the gym instead of doing more work. She put a little sign on her door at work that said do not disturb and took little naps and quiet times, she sat around in the evening and watched TV instead of researching, working, doing more.
And she hated just about every moment of it! It felt stressful, it felt foreign, it felt unproductive.
She came to my office and told me her horses, "really do not like you Nicole!" Joking slightly, but also being honest.
She told me her horses weren't fond of me every single visit for a good month or two. She had seen another acupuncturist prior to me that hadn't done much in the way of stress reduction, emotional work, etc., but spent the few minutes they did chat each week focusing on exactly what her cycle was doing, what her cervical mucus or menstrual blood was like, etc. She told me she was wondering if I was missing something by not focusing on these things (although I had gotten a 2.5 hour intake and wrote a 6 page report about her when we began working together so I had gotten a good snapshot of what I needed to do in these areas). I told her that was not my way of working (I spend a good 1/2 hour talking about life, emotions, diy options, things that have changed and the whole person at each of my visits) and that I would absolutely respect her choice if she decided I wasn't the right fit for her.
Then, her horse got the new route!
She came into the office BEAMING! I mean literally beaming!!! She exclaimed, "MY HORSE GOT IT!" And she never looked back. All the sudden, she hit a point where the new route became familiar. It had been reinforced enough times she didn't need to force it. She didn't want to work from dawn until dusk, she didn't want the weight of the world on her shoulders, she could say no, she could do less, and she felt amazing! I was so proud!!
And in the grand tradition of student becoming teacher, this particular patient has become SO good at this new route, she has occasionally had to set me straight when I do a bit more than I should. And I do my best to listen because I consider her a pro :)
And as she approaches the birth of her baby, she has more than once expressed what a completely different type of mom she will be, all because she grabbed the reigns for those two uncomfortable months. What a healthy, lovely example she will be setting for someone in the next generation, and how much more will she be able to enjoy being a mom and alive.
I hope you will give this a try. It won't be easy, but it really is one of the most powerful and healing things you can do for yourself.
One last tip. I encourage you to share what you are doing and this analogy with at least one other person who knows you well. Then encourage that person to remind you... "where are your horses?" or "redirect those horses!" My husband and I do it for one another (and as my personal route is having a short temper) it is always a mix of wanting to strangle him and wanting to kiss him for keeping me on the right path. It's a good thing to have support!