Saturday, August 8, 2009

Changing patterns of dysfunctional behavior

It appears to be human nature to engage in dysfunctional patterns of behavior. What are these dysfunctional behaviors? Anything that is a not-so-great response to certain triggers we all have. For example, typical triggers people experience are stress, boredom, loneliness, isolation, anger, etc. If we don't recognize these triggers and find functional, healthy ways of dealing with them then they lead us to engage in maladaptive, dysfunctional behaviors like starving ourselves, bingeing, over-exercising, road rage, addictive behaviors related to substances, sex, and so on. One important factor in this is that we first identify what are high risk factor situations which may or may not trigger us. So, for some people high risk factors may be their mother-in-law visiting. Granted, a mother-in-law could also be a trigger! So, if you know one of your high risk factors is your mother-in-law visiting and tha a trigger associated with this is anger, then you can figure out a way to escape the dysfunctional cycle of behavior that these two things will create. One example of a dysfuncitonal cycle of behavior in this instance would be taking an extra Valium, perhaps, so that you don't yell at your husband or mother-in-law. Another might be just going on a tirade and storming through the house throwing things. More probably, would be passive-aggressive behavior such as giving your husband the silent treatment or refusing to talk at dinner or only answer your mother-in-law's questions with one word answers stopping the conversation. This is a more minor example, but who out there hasn't engaged in this type of behavior?

More complicated, however, are instances where we fall into a dysfunctional cycle of behavior without realizing it or knowing how to stop it. This happens especially with addiction -- both addiction to substances or addictions to compulsive behaviors like bingeing, starving yourself, or viewing pornography. Most often people with report that they "can't control themselves" and that "before I knew it I was drinking a bottle of wine and couldn't stop myself." This means your mind and body are on autopilot and has simply being reinforced one too many times that these responses make you feel better for a little bit. Take the example of drinking as a dysfunctional response to rejection, for example. In some cases, a high risk factor for young women could be social settings or a fraternity party or going to a club. A trigger in this instance is seeing another hot girl getting hit on instead of you or being ignored by all the guys. Without even thinking about it, young women will start throwing back shots of alcohol and making themselves so drunk that they don't have to think about the rejection, the low self-esteem, their poor self-image. For a short time, the alcohol acts as a social lubricant and makes them feel better. If you do this often enough, soon you're drinking whenever you feel badly and now you're dysfunctional behavior is controlling your life. I encourage people to follow a standard breakdown discussed both by Steven Hayes and Kelly Wilson in their book, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, as well as by the DUI curriculum in Colorado created by Dr. Dave Timken. They call it different things but added together, they work.

1. Identify the EVENT -- what are the circumstances? (example: fired from job)

2. What THOUGHTS are you having with regard to this, what shows up in your mind automatically? (examples: "I'm such a loser." "Nobody wants me." "I'm never going to be able to pay my bills." "The person who fired me is a b...")

3. What FEELINGS/EMOTIONS are you experiencing? (examples: anger, self-pity, frustration, fear)

4. Now what are the MALADAPTIVE ACTIONS you can take in this situation and what are the ADAPTIVE actions you can take? Maladaptive take you further away from how you want to live your life, further away from making a positive, proactive, healthy choice. Adaptive actions are healthy choices which get you closer to your ultimate goal in life, good decision making.

Examples of maladaptive actions in this situation might be to punch your boss, to scream and yell at your boss, to go home and take it out on your partner, to go the bar and get drunk, etc.

Examples of adaptive actions might be: ask for a reference letter so you can get a new job, go to a yoga class, go home and talk to your partner about how badly you're feeling, cry, call a friend and discuss it, re-vamp your resume, etc.

Thoughts and feelings are automatic, uncontrollable things that show up whenever we experience an event. They just are what they are and we can't really control them or make them go away. Feelings, in particular, even "bad" ones are important to our progression, evolution, well-being, actualization. Feelings are messengers which tell us how to respond and what we need to be doing in a situation. Pay attention to your feelings even if they are not great ones. But, the area we really need to focus on are the ACTION areas -- because what we CHOOSE TO ACTUALLY DO is what is important. We, as humans, can think one thing, feel another, and still choose to do something completely different. We can think that we want to punch our boss, we can feel that we are fat but what matters is that we stop long enough to choose adaptive actions rather than maladaptive ones.

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