For Your Health: Living intentionally reduces stress

James M. Smith, PhD
James M. Smith, PhD

Have you ever had the experience of driving home after work, pulling into your driveway, and not remembering the trip home?

How about flipping through the channels comfy on your couch, and your batteries in the remote go dead? You get up to go to the drawer in the kitchen where you keep your batteries and burnt birthday candles, but the next thing you know you've got the fridge door open thinking, "What did I come in here for?"

One more: you've got a big pile of laundry to fold, so you turn on your favorite show and the next thing you know you're reaching into an empty laundry basket, because you've folded it all and didn't realize it?

If any of these things have happened to you, don't worry. That's actually a sign that your brain is working properly!

We have this autopilot mechanism in our brain. It's super useful! It's what allows us to multitask. Anything we do repeatedly can become an unconscious, automatic habit. This is what makes Steph Curry and Simone Biles and Patrick Mahomes so great at their respective sports. They repeat and repeat and repeat until their movements become automatic.

Our brains form automatic responses to stimuli to save us time, mental energy and physical effort. Automatic responses are like railroad tracks in our nervous system. Our brain gets on the train when it senses certain stimuli and takes us where the railroad track leads without us thinking about it at all.

The problem is unhelpful responses to life situations can also form railroad tracks, automatic responses in our thoughts, feelings and behaviors. When the brain senses a stress stimuli, we're 100 miles down Anxiety Railway before we know what's happened. Other stimuli might put us on the train to Anger Depot, and we don't realize that we're lashing out until we've said or done something that we regret.

These automatic responses are what govern our habits, both good and bad. They can be the source of painful stress in our lives. If you find yourself in the same, painful situation over and over again, you may have one of these automatic responses ingrained in your experience of the world.

Learning to live more deliberately can help us reduce stress in the long run by helping us avoid getting on these unhealthy trains in our brains. When we learn to be more intentional about what we are doing, we can catch these automatic responses before the train takes us to a destination we don't like.

Learning to live deliberately, though, is not easy work. Living deliberately may mean raising to the level of consciousness some uncomfortable realities of our lives. These painful automatic responses can be related to unhealthy primary relationships we've had, trauma we've experienced, or environmental factors out of our control. Mental illness can influence our automatic responses, forming difficult trains of thought that can feel impossible to remove.

Some people find themselves engaging in the same behaviors over and over again and not understanding why. Others find themselves in unhealthy relationships time and again and don't understand how come. Still others find themselves trapped in loops of anxiety, depression, or even suicidal thinking.

If this describes you, chances are you are operating out of unconscious, habitual, automatic responses. Mental health professionals can help you uncover them and learn new ways of interacting with the world. You don't have to live with the pain of automatic, unhealthy habits. Reach out to a mental health provider. There is help available.

James M. Smith, PhD, is a licensed professional counselor with SSM Health Medical Group Outpatient Behavioral Health. He is also an educator, public speaker and researcher. To make an appointment with Dr. Smith, please call 573-681-3249.

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