Friday, November 9, 2007

Pattern Disruption – Harnessing the Power of Pausing and Choosing

Dear Readers:

In the last post, we discussed pattern development. Now we are going to explore pattern disruption. The choice to follow the pattern you know, or to break it resides in the pause between the stimulus that triggers the desire to overeat, and your response.

It feels compulsive, so how can unhealthy eating ever be a choice?

Let’s use the example of touching a hot object on the stove.

In some circumstances, where we can see that removing our hand would cause a worse consequence (such as spilling boiling water all over ourselves), we can override our instinctive reaction to remove our hand. We can break the pattern because we are able to make a conscious choice.

In other situations, the heat stimulus feels so great and startling that we simply remove ourselves from the source as quickly as possible, not even considering other possibilities. We react automatically. We go with our conditioning, and sometimes this works out, and sometimes doesn't. If we are conditioned to go on a brisk walk when we are upset, it can often help, but if our conditioning says to eat a gallon of ice cream...well that gets rid of the immediate feeling but has some unpleasant long-term consequences!

Occasionally, the heat stimulus could come as a surprise. When we are very shocked, we can become immobile for a moment. Then, once we regroup from our confusion, we burst into action, usually the conditioned response. An everyday example of this temporary paralysis is to overeat after we have experienced feeling indecisive and uncertain in a new situation.

What state of mind makes the difference in which response is picked? What makes us able to override our instinctual response versus fleeing thoughtlessly from the stimulus, or becoming frozen in shock? What makes us choose consciously?

Belief does. Belief in the possibility of choice. Our belief in options leads us to making a conscious choice. Our belief we have no viable options leads us to feeling trapped in the experience, helpless to change it. When we operate on the belief there is only one option, no options, or no viable options, then whatever our default mode is becomes our reaction. Awareness of options opens us up to new actions.

Belief in some level, however small, of choice or option, no matter what the circumstances are, creates a feeling of internal power that calms the initial panic/auto pilot reaction to undesirable stimuli. Disbelief in choice creates a feeling of either denial (i.e. this can’t be happening because I don’t want it to) or powerlessness and resignation to the undesirable stimuli.

Here is the mindset, which you can train yourself to use, that will allow you to exercise your choice, rather than following your compulsion
: **

You must believe that in every situation, no matter how dire, there is some level of choice.
Even when you feel there are no choices you like or want to choose, you still can choose your attitude about being in a situation that is not in your control.


Exercising choice of attitude challenges our conditioning. Try having awareness of choice in attitude when you are experiencing an everyday frustration where you feel trapped, for example a traffic jam. There is so much you can't do to change it...but what can you do to change you?

There is one rule here: don’t try to control how you feel. Feelings are natural - they ebb, flow and change. The only thing you need to do in these exercises is acknowledge your feelings. These exercises are focused on learning to take charge of your choices, not judging yourself for having feelings.


When you become triggered into overeating, extend the pause before you respond. Take at least a minute, attention turned inward, and observe what the impulse is about without judgment. Looked at compassionately, you will watch it change. Just acknowledge what's happening. No denial, no indulgence. You don’t have to feed it. You don’t have to starve it. Pause and reflect. It may feel urgent, but given some time, the urgency will diminish. It may be a comforting habit, but given some time, the need for a particular eating routine will lessen.


Search outside your comfort zone for choices that will help you, even if you don’t “feel” like doing them. New habits take repetition to instill, so be patient as you unlearn and relearn new, healthier response patterns. Make a list of choices ahead of time, when you aren’t feeling so overwhelmed. Carry the list around, review it, add to it, refine it. Carry the list around, add to it, and review it. Practice choosing something different than what you always do when you feel bad. Because it is not yet a habit, it may initially cause restlessness, agitation, or discomfort. If so, again practice the pause to help you stay longer each successive time in the new activity. Practice choosing something different.

If you have trouble seeing your choices, I suggest you read Victor Frankl’s classic book, “Man’s Search for Meaning.” It is an inspiring story of how someone in a concentration camp faced with horrific imprisonment found small ways every day to choose how to live in a situation of apparent powerlessness and despair.

Notice your pattern, acknowledge your triggers, create a pause before doing, and exercise your power of choice.

You have far more power to live a fulfilling life than you realize or have ever used. It does, however, take practice!

These three simple exercises are amazingly powerful if practiced regularly. Let me know what you think and how it works for you. Post here or to my email:


Next Post: Choice and Consequences - Creating Your Internal Locus of Control

**Depression ranges on a spectrum from simple to complex, from mild to severe. These exercises are most effective when you are feeling mild to moderate, more simple depressive situations, but they are also good tools that can be integrated with other treatments.

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