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Do You Get Caught Up in the Same Old Reactions?

By Karen Sherman

Have you ever blown up at your spouse only to realize after the smoke cleared that you might have over-reacted just a tad? Maybe you learn that you haven't been invited to your uncle's friend's sister's birthday party and you behave as if it's the slight of the century.

Sometimes even the most minor snafu can send us storming out of the room, slamming down a phone, or just shutting down entirely. It's like we just can't help it the reaction is as automatic as a mallet to the knee.

Science Reveals It May Not Be Your Fault
New research indicates that these habitual, knee-jerk responses go way back to our childhood. As youngsters, we learned to adapt to our families' idiosyncrasies as a way of survival. Psychologists used to refer to these coping mechanisms as our baggage but what science has now shown us is that these responses are actually hard-wired into our brains. And because our responses are so ingrained, they have become our filtering system for future incidents. In other words, if something happens today that the brain reads as being similar to something that happened in the past, it will respond as if it were the first time, even though you may be in your 30's, 40's, 50's, 60's and beyond.

Bringing This to Life
For example, let's say a child comes from a home where the parents fight frequently. That child is going to associate yelling with bad feelings. In later years, if his spouse raises her voice, he's likely to shut down like when he was a kid - metaphorically running to his room, closing the door, and essentially blocking out the noise.

Does this mean if you come from a family of yellers you re doomed to hide under your bed every time someone raises a voice? Luckily, recent research indicates that the brain continues to grow throughout our lives and old patterns can be released as new ones are formed in your boomer years.

Help Is On the Way
The way to managing your anger and knee jerk reactions is to establish new connections by refocusing your attention to a different outcome or possibility. But, before you can foster these new connections in your brain, you have to be aware of the old brain triggers.

When I try and distinguish whether someone's reaction is a past association, I look to see if their reaction to the situation is automatic and intense. Additionally, when I try and offer an alternative to why they're behaving that way, the person is resistant and reluctant to consider any other view or interpretation of the situation other than their own.

In my practice, I work extensively with clients to help them rewire and rewrite their lives. Here is an easy exercise to get you started on rewiring your brain to control your anger and over-reactions that will bring about positive changes in your life-today!

  1. Thinking of Alternatives:
    a. When you re projecting your past experience onto a present one, try and imagine alternative ways to handle the situation. For example, let's say you have lunch plans with a friend who cancels at the last minute. Immediately, you feel an overwhelming sense of hurt and rejection. Which is how you always feel in similar situations indicating - voila - a past pattern! Be conscious of this and take a step back to recognize it.

    b. Then, approach the situation from an entirely different perspective. Maybe you use humor to deflect the bad feelings, thinking to yourself, "Gee, I guess it's my deodorant." Or, you choose the direct approach and ask your friend if you've done something to upset her. Or, you take the practical route and figure your friend just overbooked, overextended, or over-promised and give her a get-out-of-jail-free card. (Hint: If you have difficulty coming up with alternative ways to handle the situation, think about how someone else - your mother, a childhood friend, an admired acquaintance - might handle the same situation.)

  2. Plugging in New Choices:
    a. Now, replay the actual situation as vividly as possible - the phone ringing, the sound of your friend's voice, the awkward goodbyes - and imagine yourself carrying out one of your new solutions. Maybe you decide that being understanding of your friend's busy schedule is the best choice.

    b. Replay the phone call and plug in your new behavior, the understanding you, rather than playing out your old behavior of feeling rejected and hurt.

Making it Last
Before long, you will begin to see a slight shift in how you feel. By doing this exercise again and again, you will refocus your attention on a new outcome. This will rewire your brain and make a new neural connection a connection to positive change!

Finally, a psychologist who goes that extra mile and cares about the people she helps. Whether Karen Sherman, Ph.D. is giving a speech, offering a teleseminar, or offering a workshop - she's helping people become aware of their choices and connect to their full potential. Let Karen help you learn to make positive life choices both personally and in your relationships by signing up for her free newsletter.

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