Entries in patterns (2)



Over and over I witness people who come to me for help, struggling with stress that they can't stop or even limit.  They feel controlled by the stress that is usually in the form of worries and fears that they think about over and over.  They have frequently been diagnosed as having an obsessive compulsive disorder [OCD]. In reviewing their symptoms, it appears that they have some OCD type symptoms, but they are mostly focused on repetitive worries and some compulsive behaviors. However, these symptoms do not interfere significantly with their lives. For example, they are not stuck doing things over and over for hours.  So, it seems that their OCD symptoms are coping mechanisms helping them deal with the anxiety that they experience related to past traumatic events. If they can learn to not worry about past events then their OCD symptoms will stop.

Well, what about changing patterns of worry that can control our lives? I mention the worries and OCD type symptoms to emphasize that just as the symptoms are temporary [meant to temporarily help us manage anxiety related to past events] the worries are also temporary as a way of coping with past traumatic events. What is significant is that even though in the past we might have had to cope by worrying, as this helped us to feel more in control as by taking on responsibility when those who were supposed to be responsible weren't and we felt that we were preventing something worse from happening, we do not need to do that now. So how do we convince ourselves and our brains that we do not need to worry anymore.  

We humans modify patterns of behavior and memory patterns frequently without much apparent effort. We calmly tell our brains to change the pattern and why it is ok to do so. When we have experienced stressful events we are reluctant to recall these events as we fear a return of anxiety as if we were still at risk for something bad happening. This is one reason that the patterns remain even though we want relief from the anxiety. We also tend to react to new stresses as if they are the same kind of threat as in the past.  This tells our brain to keep worrying and being stressed and anxious. We seem to have difficulty recognizing that we now have better coping skills and self-awareness, and are not dependent on others as we were in the past. Therefore, new stresses are not threats to us as they were in the past and we can manage them, so we need to calmly tell ourselves that.  



Many of us [all of us?] have experienced a time when we want to change what we are doing but don't seem to be able to change our behaviors or thoughts. It can feel like our brain's are working against us...therefore the question of "whose side our brain's are on."  So what is up with our brains? William James stated that: " In most of us, by the age of  thirty, the character has set like plaster, and will never soften again." [from The Principles of Psychology, 1890, by James]. A summary of years of research regarding personality [How Much Can You Really Change After You Turn 30? by Melissa Dahl from the New York Magazine; 2014/11] indicates that by 30-35 years of age it is set and not likely to change much after that. This seems to mean that behavior patterns are stable and more resistant to change as well.  Paul Costa, Jr scientist emeritus at the laboratory of behavioral science at the National Institutes of Health is reported to have indicated that changes in personality come much more slowly in the 30s, 40s, and 50s. Now Brian Little, a lecturer in Psychology at the University of Cambridge [England] indicates that even though up to 50% of our personality is genetically derrived, we can still choose how we behave even if it is at odds with our core personality traits. However, Little believes that we will feel anxiety if we deviate from our core personality traits and will feel depleted and need to return to our "real selves" to let go of the anxiety.  

So, does any of this apply to patterns of behavior that are caused by traumatic events and become part of our daily coping with life?  It does seem that the patterns that we establish as children at harder to modify compared to later ones. These patterns related to traumatic events don't seem to be part of our core personality traits although those core traits must influence how we cope and what patterns that we establish. This may be why some people who are traumatized develop obsessive coping patterns while others are irritable and others over think and others are people pleasers, etc.  

So, does this mean that traumatic experiences can cause us to cope and develop stable coping patterns that are difficult to change but are not part of our core personalities and not really who we are? And why does our brain resist changing patterns?  Well, some of those patterns are essential for sustaining our lives in the next few minutes like body temperature, respirations, heart functioning, etc. Maybe this is why our brains are cautious about changing patterns.  In addition, when we are traumatized and learn to cope to reduce the liklihood of being traumatized again, our brains are going to want to be sure that it is ok to change this coping and that we will not be overwhelmed like before. 

Therefore, it is a good thing that our brains maintain patterns and our brains really are on our side.