Do you continually find yourself reacting to situations or behaving in ways that you know aren’t helpful, but you can’t seem to get out of the pattern? Perhaps you know that you are “overreacting”, but you just can’t seem to “help” yourself? Your emotions override your brain. This comes up often in therapy. I often hear things like:
- “I know I that I’m a safe driver, but I can’t stop worrying about car accidents when I’m on the road.”
- “I know it’s ridiculous to be freaking out about being in between people in a grocery store checkout line, but I feel trapped and like I just need to get out of there.”
- “I know no one is paying attention to me when I get up to go sharpen my pencil, but I feel like everyone is staring at me.”
- “I know I shouldn’t let people treat me this way, but I just feel like I’m not good enough.”
If this sounds like you, think about if you can pinpoint when this first started. Can you think of a time when your thoughts or reactions made more sense? Often initial traumas change our thinking and worldview. These may be situations or events involving:
- A car accident
- A panic attack seemingly out of nowhere
- Teasing or bullying at school
- Early negative relationships
Given this context, these exaggerated responses begin to make more sense. It’s perfectly normal and evolutionarily adaptive! For our ancestors, it was much safer to avoid a perceived threat than to take the chance of getting eaten by tigers! But what happens when your “perceived threat” is no longer a real potential danger? This can lead to anxiety, irritability, exhaustion, depression, and difficulty coping with previously manageable stressors. We proceed through life reacting to imaginary threats.
What to Do
Sometimes recognizing these patterns on your own can be enough to initiate change. By identifying earlier adaptive patterns, you are in a better position to change them if they are no longer serving you. Without judgment, remind yourself that these earlier patterns may have been helpful to you in the past, but you are now in a place where you can react differently.
Other times you may require support to help you initiate lasting change to develop new, healthier ways of living your life. One of the most rewarding experiences as a therapist is taking this journey with clients to help them identify the moments these “shifts” took place, and help them find tools to “shift” again into a better place.