Recovery is defined in the dictionary as “a return to a normal state of health, mind, or strength.”
And while we’re emerging from a global pandemic crisis that has changed our life as we know it, we’re all eager to return to normal.
But was that normal truly satisfying to you?
It seems that for many Americans that was not the case, with stress, burnout, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse widespread before the pandemic. And it seems the pandemic may have increased the prevalence of these serious health issues.
It appears to me that we are all in desperate need for recovery, whatever our personal challenges.
And although getting caught in the loop of any self-sabotaging behavior is conventionally viewed as “brokenness,” the truth is, this is a “common humanity” issue. Perhaps it would make a great difference in the world if we joined hands in taking the stress out of addressing it.
As a burnout recovery survivor and a stress management coach, I know that the path to recovery from anything is inextricably linked to our relationship with stress.
This article intends to de-pathologize our human tendency to get caught in the loop of default habits and patterns that trip us up and to explore simple, science-based methods we can apply in our lives in order to take the stress out of our path to recovery.
The truth about sabotaging habits and patterns
We often tend to stigmatize “bad habits,” particularly the ones that pertain to addictions to substances. But the truth is, when we get caught in the loop of harmful habits despite their negative consequences, it’s only because of the way past experiences have linked them with rewards and not because we’re broken.
I learned this lesson the hard way, when I got caught in the vicious cycle of perfectionism, sacrificing self-care and balance in exchange for financial security and status-quo corporate trophies.
My inability to recognize that I was running my life on an unconscious and harmful default mode led me to burnout and to organ damage, specifically of my spine.
It wasn’t until I turned to neuroscience that I learned the truth about habits and was able to apply this science in my own life and, since then, in the lives of many others. This knowledge catapulted my healing journey onto the path to recovery.
What I learned is that habits are behavioral and neurological patterns that get installed through structural and chemical changes in the cells of our nervous system based on the way past experiences have been encoded and transferred into long-term memory.
Some habits are consciously created, stored, and elicited by the evolved, thinking part of our brain that is responsible for the accomplishments that we’re proud of, such as eating five servings of fruit and veggies every day.
Other habits are unconsciously created, stored, and elicited by a more primitive, reactive part of our brain, which acts much faster without thinking. Examples are smoking or eating a muffin after an argument with our partner.
When we seemingly fail to practice self-control to defeat a particular sabotaging habit, whether the habit is drinking, smoking, or emotional eating, scientifically speaking, it’s not your fault.
You’re simply caught in a default loop of emotional reactions, thoughts, and actions that your nervous system has established as effective in helping you meet your needs, such as getting closer to pleasure, avoiding pain, or connecting with the important people in your life.
The more we take that default path, the more neurons fire and wire together, reinforcing that habit loop, making it nearly impossible to break.
This is where stress comes in. Without our intervention, whenever stress runs high, we will revert to our default mode and our nervous system will run our life without our permission.
It will direct our actions to whatever in the past has been established as effective in activating the reward centers in our brain to release “feel good” hormones like dopamine, serotonin, or oxytocin.
The implications of that habit loop can be immense, especially because shame and self-judgment accompany our inability to stop it, further reinforcing it.
So, as much as we think that recovery involves fixing ourselves in some way, quite the opposite is true. Scientifically-speaking, the path to recovery involves unhinging your true self from the entrapment of fear-based stress responses.
The relationship of stress to recovery
In order to effectively address stress on our path to recovery, let’s take a moment to revisit what stress is all about.
Stress gets a bad rap, but it’s an invaluable survival mechanism that involves all the adaptive changes your brain directs your body to make so that you have everything you need to rise to the challenges of life and stay safe from threats.
In the face of a threat, our energy and functions will be redirected from our high energy functions, (like our creative problem solving or immune functions) to the large muscle groups to give us the highest survival advantage, for example, so we can run from a predator.
This evolutionary response becomes maladaptive when we use it for longer than what we’re physiologically designed to handle, placing us in a compromised state physically, emotionally, and cognitively.
Why do we overuse our stress response?
There are many parameters in our unique personal history that can predispose us to over-activate our stress response, for example, childhood or other trauma.
However, one common culprit that most of us can relate to is shame and self-judgment.
When we’re in the compromised state of our stress response, more times than not, we perceive this state as a sign of weakness, an indication that we’re falling short in some way.
This presents to our brain as a threat to our self-concept, keeping us entrapped in the neurochemistry of stress sometimes for hours, sometimes for days, and, without our intervention, for years.
Changing habits in recovery takes a lot of energy. But when we’re under the spell of our stress response, our energy is diluted and diverted.
So, it is safe to say, until we take control of our stress response, we don’t have access to the resources we need to change a habit or pattern that does not serve us and stay on the path to recovery.
How to clear stress out of the path to recovery
Clearing stress out of our path to recovery is a journey that involves moment to moment adjustments we can make to replace default reactivity, which sabotages us, with conscious, wiser choices that serve us and actually change our brains.
We once thought this was impossible. However, the great neuroscience discovery of neuroplasticity has revealed that by learning how to work with our body, mind, and everyday experiences, we can change our brain and our life for the better.
The simplest way to do that involves taking back control of what we allow to occupy the space between how we would like things to be and how they actually are.
Often, what keeps you stuck, overwhelmed, and blocks your path to recovery comes down to what you think, which determines how you feel, which leads to what you do.
What if your goals instead were to find ways to extend the space between a trigger and your reaction and to minimize the time you’re under the spell of your stress response?
Cultivating your ability to train the attention of your mind away from its evolutionary tendency to fixate on negative aspects of experience is a well-documented pathway to accomplish these goals.
Many therapeutic modalities incorporate the robust mind/body research to include such mind-based interventions.
Besides therapy, there are a myriad of tools you can use in your everyday life to change your brain and your life for the better. These include mindfulness, reframing, mind-mapping, journaling, breathing techniques, and other methods.
One other critical element you must embrace in order to effectively clear stress out of your path to recovery is self-compassion.
Shame and self-judgment are destructive to our attempts to recover.
Regardless of whether you wish to recover from workaholism, alcoholism, or burnout, without self-compassion the path will be really tough.
Kristin Neff, the world’s prominent expert on self-compassion, offers a simple, three-step process we can use to override our tendency to be hard on ourselves when we fail or make a mistake:
- Mindfulness — Observing our thoughts that lead to reflexive habits, which sabotage us, without identifying and getting lost in them.
- Kindness — Choosing to treat ourselves as we would our best friend when they slip up, fail, or make a mistake.
- Recognition of our common humanity —We’re all in this together and by openly sharing our struggles to shift our default reactivity to wiser responses, we exorcize the shame and stigma that comes with slip-ups.
As we’re beginning to take baby steps to a life after the coronavirus crisis, this may be a great time to re-assess what you would like to leave behind, so you can move toward a healthier and stronger state of mind and body.
If you find yourself in need of recovering from workaholism, alcoholism, or burnout, remember that what got you here is not your fault, but you have the power to change how your mind and brain is sculpted going forward.
By learning how to work with your mind, body, and everyday experiences, you can replace default, self-sabotaging reactivity with wiser responses that support you.
And that, my friend, is the ultimate path to freedom. Because then, every moment, every thought, and every mishap along the way become the building blocks of the path to exactly where you want to go.