“We make our decisions, and then our decisions turn around and make us.” — Frank W. Boreham
We are a composite of the decisions we make, whether we are conscious of them or not. The ever-elusive challenge of promoting health and a life of fulfillment is successfully sculpting our behaviors to yield the changes we wish to see. Whatever is ailing us, from experiencing a loss to living with a chronic health condition, our approach to addressing it has lifelong and life-changing ramifications.
The search for a wonder drug to heal our maladies has evaded our efforts. Yet worldwide pharma revenues were 1.42 trillion US dollars in 2021. All the while, 57% of the calories that the average US American consumes comes from ultra-processed foods. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as “eat this instead of that.” Food insecurity and availability (food swamps and deserts) complicate the picture.
To emerge from the hold of chronic disease requires a multi-faceted approach. We cannot simply finance more services and expect the chronically ill to heal through these programs. Neither can we view ourselves as helpless or victims of life’s traumas. The message is that we can change – we can adapt – and, in return, change our environments to begin the journey to optimal health.
An approach that takes us away from illness and closer to wellness can begin by understanding our behaviors. The secret to adjusting behavior and unlocking natural healing takes us deep into our brain’s adaptive response to the environment.
Here are four metaphors that illustrate various properties of our behaviors. I will shed light on ways we can energize our thoughts and create new behavioral patterns that will release us from the hold and enable us to fine-tune proactive adaptations.
1. The Rocket-In-Orbit
2. The Ball and Chain
3. The Finger Trap
4. The Puppy-In-Training
The Rocket in Orbit
When a rocket enters an orbit, it remains under the forces of the external world to flow freely within the orbit. To break the inertia of the orbit’s gravitational pull, it needs to exert a thrust capable of breaking free of the opposite force that holds it hostage within the orbit.
Similarly, the brain controls its actions to remain within the conservative limits of the world it perceives. As the brain receives input from the environment of a potential hazard, it interprets the threat level and evokes a response. Any of several reactions may occur, but they usually result in engaging or disengaging the stimulus.
The sympathetic response, or “fight or flight,” becomes one of the commanding instincts that drive most decisions. We operate mainly on a subconscious level – as much as ninety percent of our decisions. These instincts conserve excessive energy and move us away from possible pain or toward pleasure. They may be employed in defensive or offensive capacities to address a potential threat and motivate one to accomplish a goal.
The concept of homeostasis describes the regulatory and counterregulatory mechanisms that the body uses to maintain its functioning. When an injury occurs, whether it is from a wound, stress, infection, or toxin, injured cells signal inflammation to the rest of the body. The sympathetic nervous system activates the body to prepare for adapting to the stress signal.
Cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine are released and induce physiologic changes in the body. The hormone cortisol secreted by the adrenal glands signals the brain to release dopamine, the precursor of epinephrine and norepinephrine. Dopamine relates to cravings and movement. Neuroscientists have found a state of dopamine deficiency in conditions such as obesity, drug addiction, Parkinsonism, and even chronic stress.
When we remain in orbit, we cannot change and adapt. Yet that is the same response that the brain fashions after grappling with significant trauma. In some ways, it attempts to maintain itself within the grip of the trauma adaptation. The rocket fuel to propel oneself out of an orbit comes from self-awareness, self-compassion, and motivation. The astronaut knows they will need to brace themselves when they leave the orbit as strong perturbations and risk can often accompany the change. So too, we must exert a thruster to change our behaviors and we must acknowledge that a change comes with stress and pain as we transcend our trauma and let go of these patterns that hold us back from adapting.
The Ball and Chain
The old ball and chain: this is an old metaphor for behaviors like addictions. The ball and chain probably metaphor goes back to the restraint used in the British Empire beginning in the 17th century. Imagine trying to walk around dragging or carrying a heavy weight. What effects does it have on the decisions you can make?
In many ways, this weight is like our behaviors. Some behaviors can limit our degrees of freedom, requiring us to pay attention to them even while we make decisions not directly related to them. The stronger our attachments become to a behavior, the fewer degrees of freedom we have.
Imagine that there are many stress management strategies. We often find the ones that present themselves to us, or we adapt to stress as it evokes our nervous system to prepare for significant injury. In the setting of significant trauma, our bodies release high levels of hormones and neurotransmitters such as cortisol, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and dopamine. The elevated dopamine levels released after acute trauma can lead to inflammation, or oxidative stress, in the brain. On the other hand, dopamine ties into pleasure, so it also calls us to find ways to release more. A breakdown in the reward pathway ensues, causing reward deficiency syndrome and a stronger pull toward finding external ways to increase dopamine release. When affected by dopamine deficiency, our behaviors often bring us closer to disease.
When one endures significant stress, it takes them to more potent external ways in which they can transfer or transform it. The allure of external substances such as alcohol, smoking, and drugs to reduce stress increases the risk of addiction. The adaptation to externalities leads us to a direction that ultimately holds us hostage to them.
The journey to understanding the ball-in-chain requires self-introspection. After trauma exerts an adaptive pressure, the brain holds a protective pattern that disables change and growth in many ways. There is a strong correlation between narcissism and childhood trauma. The child had to adapt or perish when there was no support for the growing brain. One of those adaptations was to incorporate a victim role to an outside perpetrator. Unfortunately, where there is victimization, there is stagnancy, as the brain locks its perspectives onto external stimuli, such as praise or rebuke, reward or punishment, trauma or peace. We ultimately reject our freedom and responsibility to adapt.
Studies suggest that significant, unprocessed trauma stifles the activity in centers that correspond with empathy while enhancing the centers that prepare for future trauma, the amygdala. These are pathways of “fight and flight” and “reward and punishment.”
The “ball and chain” begins to form when there is no egress of the trauma towards a pathway of processing and healing that can occur with supportive parents and community. Simply stopping one behavior does not heal the ball-and-chain because it started within.
A person must explore the trauma’s origin to emerge effectively. The healing results in a release from the “hole that seeks to be filled” and allows one to begin the journey to greater empathy and compassion, beginning with self-compassion, forgiveness, and acceptance.
The Finger Trap
Behavior is like a finger trap. If you have ever played with a finger trap, you will recall that the way one removes their fingers from the trap matters. Quickly pulling away will only lock your fingers into place as the web tightens its grip.
Similarly, behaviors fall in a cycle of self-regulation. We move toward the system of greatest ease and pleasure and the least pain. When we attempt to move toward the opposite direction – one that can sometimes be a source of growth, our systems turn on a response that can make us feel uncomfortable or bored. As our brains face the discomfort, it alerts us of the experience in our complete bodies. We feel the stress response calling us back to repeating our patterns.
The more we push a behavior away, the more it will call us back to it. It is like trying to concentrate on not thinking of a pink elephant. The brain cannot easily let go of what it is asked not to think about. When we push a substance away, like smoking or alcohol, we ask our brains to do the impossible.
However, when we allow ourselves space to detach while cultivating a calm spirit, we may allow the memories of the habit to pass through while we remain resolute. The thoughts will leave like a wave that passes after it crests, and we will be able to release ourselves from its grip.
No one can deny the loving feeling that seeing a puppy evokes. Puppies are so lovely and cuddly. Any dog owner knows that caring for a little one is a tremendous responsibility that requires preparation, flexibility, and compassion. The very puppy that brings us great joy to hold and observe can unleash its “puppiness” to make messes and break things.
We can approach our brains with the same love. As much as we can use our brains to actively create and execute tasks, we can also react quickly to what our brains perceive as a threat with anger, frustration, and procrastination. It can cause a real mess and not be aligned with our intentions or underlying characters.
Psychologist, author, and Nobel Prize recipient Daniel Kahneman divides our thinking into fast and slow responses. Type 1 thinking is a quick, biased, emotional, and intuitive assessment. Type 2 thinking is slower and more logical. Our neurons travel as fast as 80-120 meters per second, and each nerve fires about 200 times per second, so it isn’t a great leap to conclude that most of our thoughts occur before we become conscious of them.
We can develop both forms of thinking through awareness and learning. We can begin to train our brains when we realize that not all that we intuit is accurate and not all that we know is true. It starts with self-compassion and love. We accept that everything we did was only a result of the skills we had at that time, as underdeveloped and unskilled as they were. Although we cannot change the past, we can develop a narrative that brings us on a journey toward our best future selves.
Like a puppy-in-training, we can develop flexibility and openness towards ourselves and others as we realize that our lives allow us to grow and improve.
Behavior change is possible although it is not easy. Our brains often exert forces against change. We feel bored, frustrated, and sometimes physical pain that keep us to repeating them. Metaphors can strengthen our understanding of behavior.
To begin to see our brains not as a personal fault or failure but as a natural adaptative response enable us to overcome the hold of behavior and release the grip of fear, shame, and guilt. We equip ourselves with the forces that can overcome the inertia of our habits and takes us closer to our life and health goals.
Can you envision other metaphors of behavior?