The Dangers of Running on Autopilot

Even though I have been on my healing journey for years and have come a long way, I can still fall into old patterns of resistance, old habits that reflect who I was, not who I am now. Even after all this time, I sometimes need gentle reminders that I have taken up these old habits. Sometimes that gentle reminder comes from someone else, sometimes it comes from my compassionate adult self. The thing that helps me stay compassionate and not immediately turn to shaming and judging myself is my awareness of automatic patterns and habits, also known as running on “autopilot,” and I hope that by sharing this information with you, it can help you move forward with compassion for yourself, once you understand that it isn’t always your fault when you resist change and revert to old habits. Because until we become aware of our automatic patterns and habits, change is very difficult, sometimes impossible.

Most of our day to day behaviors and actions are done on an automatic basis. We wake up at the same time, we drink the same amount of coffee at the same time of day, we drive the same route to work, we go to the same gym, we cook the same foods, and so on. Unfortunately, much of the average adult life is structured around automatic behavior and decision-making and so we get very comfortable running on autopilot, following our same habits and routines without really having to actively think about it or fully engage with the activity, while the mind is able to remain preoccupied with other thoughts.

Don’t get me wrong, running on autopilot isn’t all bad. It actually helps the brain to conserve limited attentional resources, allowing us to do multiple tasks at once. Take driving, for example. We can drive while looking at instructions, maintaining a conversation with a passenger, or talking on the phone, while watching other cars, changing gears, adjusting mirrors, etc.

But there is certainly a negative aspect of running on autopilot that can affect your well-being. Picture this. You are running around town and at some point, you see someone you know across the street. You wave at them, maybe even shout their name to get their attention, but they keep walking and don’t see you.

There are two ways to react to this scenario. One, if your mind is running on autopilot and you aren’t present in your thoughts, is to react emotionally. Your body is flooded with bad feelings, your trauma brain starts to overanalyze and comes up with answers for you, “He/She must be mad at me, I didn’t return their call the other day,” “He/She is ignoring me, I must have done something wrong,” and so on. This causes you to spiral. Your shame is in control and you begin to feel bad about yourself and this controls your actions for the rest of the day. When you go home that night, instead of cooking yourself a healthy meal, you eat a bag of chips on impulse, because your mind isn’t thinking logically (disconnected from your logical brain and in fight/flight) and isn’t thinking about long-term consequences, and because you feel so bad and you want to feel better right now. But eating the bag of chips for dinner makes you actually feel worse about yourself (and sick to your stomach)….do you see how this sets off a terrible chain of events?

The other way you can react, when you are mindful and present in your body, is to immediately be able to direct your attention away from the lies your brain comes up with and logically think it through that they probably didn’t hear you because of headphones or the loud street noise and you’ll see them or call them later. Done, end of story, let’s move on with our day.

Running on autopilot all the time allows for unplanned reactions to external stimuli before complete processing of the information. And these unplanned reactions make you feel out of control because they seem to happen without your permission and they feel so powerful, leading to an increase in anxiety, depression, and, because of the increase in impulsivity, addiction.

If you experienced trauma when you were younger, your body tends to run on autopilot in fight or flight mode. If you are not present and running the show, your body is running it for you and it is scared of anything that happens outside of your routine. It is perceived as a threat and your body reacts to the event as if it is a threat. You then fear your reactions and feelings because you perceive yourself to not be in control of them. And because you are afraid of your own reactions and fear being out of control, your nervous system remains in fight or flight mode, sucking up all the energy and attention, so you don’t have the energy or capacity to think things through, to consider the consequences of your actions, which is why an increase in addictive habits can arise, because you are reacting impulsively. Many disorders, such as personality disorders, mania, and substance dependence involve impulsive behaviors, such as over-spending, sex addiction, substance abuse, reckless driving, and binge eating.

So what can we do to change this?

Research shows us that mindfulness practices can increase our awareness of the many ways we run on autopilot. Mindfulness keeps us aware of our body and reactions and puts us in control of them, which is most of the battle when it comes to change.

I have made some big shifts as a result of becoming aware of what I was doing on autopilot, deciding a habit or routine thought was getting in the way of a change that I was trying to make. I had to remember to be gentle with myself and not give fuel to my inner critic that is standing by, ready to see me fail. Instead, I tried to make friends with my inner critic, thanking her for keeping me safe and for standing guard all those years. “But I am here now,” I tell her, as often as she needs to hear it. “My adult self is here now, ready to step in and handle the outside and inside world with loving compassion and clear, logical thinking. I can keep us safe now, you can step back now, my friend.”

This same process applies to how I help my clients become aware of where they are operating on autopilot. And here’s a hint for you: it is often where we feel stuck. When you feel stuck, in the space between old habit and change, the fear that old habit is expressing is keeping you there. And it won’t let you move forward until you help to soothe that fear, for that old part of you and for yourself. This process requires love and compassion for yourself in order to change. Those old parts, habits, and routines don’t mean you any harm. In fact, they are trying to keep you safe, ever since you survived the initial threat you were exposed to as a child. Be grateful for them, thank them with all your heart. All they want is your acknowledgment that you’ll be safe without them, like a child needing to hear that Mommy or Daddy doesn’t need to be taken care of, that they can go play and have fun.

Mindfulness will help you to realize that you can make choices. Some people forget that they have that power over their own life. And mindfulness will encourage YOU to be the one making them all day. With simple mindfulness practices, sharing with others, self-love and self-care, you will see change over time that will have huge positive ripple effects throughout your life.

Mindfulness can be confusing in the beginning and that is why I am creating an e-course based on science and positive psychology that will be available in a few weeks. This course is self-paced and allows you to not only learn about the different mechanisms of mindfulness but you will have me to walk you through them in video segments, supported by audio recordings of mindfulness practices and meditations. If you are interested in learning more, you can either send me a message to be notified when I launch it or just be on the lookout for this announcement on Facebook!

Ready to connect with your inner child? Feeling stuck? Don’t worry. I can help! Just follow (this link) or call 619-889-6366 to reserve a one-hour coaching session with me ($125). Let me help you with the next step to healing your life. You deserve it! Reserve your spot NOW! 

Check out my NEW YouTube channel, I go live M-F at 4 pm pst/7pm est. (most weeks) to connect with the readers of my books, answer questions about healing after trauma, and discuss an important part of healing! Remember to subscribe to receive updates of new videos or Livestream events.

Are you looking for more support? I have created a closed Facebook group for the readers of “Releasing Your Authentic Self."  If you are ready to dig deep, and want to experience the daily support, encouragement from others like you. Follow this link to learn moreReleasing Your Authentic Self Support Group.

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