Success in work, love, and life depends on developing habits that activate the powerful prefrontal cortex when we need it most.
Dr. Stosny’s Articles on Oprah.com
O Magazine Article
Forget everything you’ve heard about relationships.
Want to reduce anger? Prevent resentment? Eat and drink healthfully? Perform better at work? Improve relationships? Increase self-value? Act in your long-term best interests, no matter what other people do?
Now there’s a reliable way to achieve all the above. It’s called, emotion reconditioning.
By the time we’re adults, emotions occur almost exclusively by conditioned responses. We feel more or less the same way whenever certain things happen in certain physiological and mental states.
“Conditioned response” means:
After repeated association of A with B…
When A occurs, B occurs automatically.
“A” can be environmental cues (something happens or somebody does something):
The bell rings, the dog gets excited.
Your phone vibrating automatically stimulates your interest.
The sound of laughter makes you feel happy, guilty, ashamed, or sad.
“A” can be physiological states. Every person has conditioned emotional responses to each of these: tired, sleepy, hungry, thirsty, having consumed more than two cups of coffee or too much sugar, nicotine, or alcohol.
“A” can be a mental state – certain thoughts, perceptions, sensations memories, or imaginary events. (Think of how you feel when you remember something a politician said or when you imagine what your spouse should have said.)
“A” is most often a combination of all the above.
Emotions Motivate Behavior
Emotions move us. (The Latin root of the word, “emotion,” literally means “to move.”) They prepare us to do things by sending chemical signals to the muscles and organs of the body. Whenever you have an emotion, you’re moved to do something, whether or not you act on it.
The emotions that motivate troublesome behavior are those that make us feel vulnerable and devalued. (Examples are guilt, shame, and anxiety.) In response, we’ll often try to feel more powerful by devaluing others (anger, resentment, envy, or jealousy). Or we’ll overeat, overwork, or drink too much. The emotional system becomes narrow, rigid, and weak. You’re either resentful or nervous or depressed. You struggle to maintain interest and enjoyment. Other people seem to control how you feel. They “push your buttons.”
How Conditioned Emotional Responses Become Habits
It’s easy to form a habit. All you have to do is act on conditioned emotions repeatedly.
Habits are something you do automatically, without thinking about it. You reach in your pocket for the ringing phone, drink when you feel tense or sad, or devalue someone when you feel angry. The brain loves habits because they conserve mental energy. The difference between a habit and a similar behavior consciously decided is hundreds of millions of multi-firing neurons.
Once habits are formed, they can be changed only by forging new habits.
Due to their mental efficiency, habits dominate under stress and when physical resources are low. That makes it hard to maintain change. As soon as you’re tired, stressed, or distracted, the old habit returns.
The traditional approach to changing habits is to practice new behaviors when the conditioned emotional response occurs. Instead of drinking or overeating when you feel sad, for instance, you practice calling a friend or meditating or listening to music.
Unfortunately, it takes ongoing conscious attention and willpower to override conditioned emotion responses. Conscious attention and willpower are the most easily exhaustible of mental resources. They’re almost impossible to sustain when physical resources are low or when distractions are high.
But wait, it get worse. Emotions originate in a primitive part of the brain, where they’re processed within thousandths of a second. The slowest emotion happens about 5,000 times faster than you can have any idea that you feel sad or ashamed or angry. By the time you know that you feel anger, for instance, you’ve already devalued someone, at least in your head. Before you know that you’re sad, you’re motivated to drink or eat too much. Before you know that you feel vulnerable, you’re motivated to blame, deny, or avoid. Before you know you’re ashamed, you’re motivated to seek quick adrenalin through active or passive aggression.
Emotionally aroused, you’re unlikely to recall what you learned when calm and thinking clearly. That’s why Mr. Hyde won’t remember what Dr. Jekyll learned in anger management class. It’s also why you won’t think of drinking a V-8 until after you’ve eaten the whole cake.
The better way to change undesired habits is to recondition the emotions that activate them.
Our approach to emotion reconditioning is to associate vulnerable and devaluing emotions with those that raise value of self and others. (Examples of valuing emotions are interest, enjoyment, compassion, and passion.) Valuing emotions strengthen the emotional system, while making it more flexible, with a wider range of experience. Once the association is conditioned through practice, the occurrence of a devaluing emotion automatically stimulates a valuing emotion.
It takes practice of something similar to “emotion pushups” to recondition the emotion system. Repeating emotion exercises several times a day for about six weeks builds conditioned responses that move you automatically from a devalued state (anger, resentment, overwhelmed, or out of control) to feeling valuable. When you don’t feel valuable, you want to blame, deny, or avoid. When you valuable, you want to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.
Our reconditioning programs target the physical signs of emotion arousal – tension around the eyes, jaw, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, and chest. Physical changes happen more rapidly than awareness of emotion. This enables the programs to forge new emotional associations that are largely unconscious:
Before you knowingly feel anger, you’ll try to make the situation better. (Anger and resentment usually make things worse.)
Before you know that you want to take another drink, you’ll notice something to appreciate or try to form a connection with someone.
Before you know that you feel nervous, you’ll start to improve, appreciate, connect, or protect.
Before you know you’re hungry, you’ll start to feel more valuable, which lowers the impulse to overeat.
Within six weeks, you will have created more value and meaning in your daily life. You’ll act more in your long-term best interests. You’ll most likely improve all your significant relationships.