Breathe! It’s the first step to interrupt entrenched behavioral patterns

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Brenda and Terry have been having terrible arguments about how to raise their children. Brenda is a strict disciplinarian who feels that it’s her job to teach the kids the rules, while Terry’s attitude is that it’s more important to have fun family times. Their arguments are ruining their relationship, and are deeply disturbing to their children. When the kids are upset, normal challenges such as bedtimes and squabbles become extraordinarily difficult to manage.

These parents are stuck in long-standing negative patterns. When Brenda feels put down about her parenting by Terry, she fires back a tirade of critical and contemptuous comments. Her counterattack is designed to undermine Terry’s self-confidence so he’ll back off, which is something that Terry can do very well. In fact, he’ll go for days hardly speaking to his wife.

Much of the time Brenda is a pleasant person. But when she feels attacked, her reactions are intense. Interestingly, she says that she feels like a bad little girl when negative feelings flood her mind and flow uncensored out of her mouth. When asked about the origins of those emotions, Brenda recalls first having experienced them when her mother would tell her she was being a bad little girl and then beat her with a belt.

Thirty years later, Brenda still has a gut churning reaction to criticism as fear grips her mind and she lashes out to protect herself. But she’s not danger of being beaten now, making her behavior grossly disproportionate to her present situation. Can Brenda stop her deep-seated fear from being aroused? Probably not, but she doesn’t have to follow the old pattern for expressing it.

Brenda becomes very remorseful after her outbursts, telling herself, “I will not get angry again.” However, using “not” in pledging to change is ineffective because our brain doesn’t hear that word when we’re trying to picture positive outcomes. To demonstrate this phenomenon, try this exercise: Do not think of a pink elephant dancing on its hind legs with it’s trunk in the air. Get the picture?

Brenda and Terry need a picture of positive behaviors they can use to handle anger arousing situations in the future. Then when Brenda recognizes that a fear-based reaction is building within her, she can make a conscious choice to do something else other than allowing her childhood programming to take over. The picture of a positive outcome they developed in counseling was the two of them talking about mutually acceptable solutions for handling issues that arise with their kids.

However, there’s an essential first step that must be taken in order to interrupt entrenched behavioral patterns: Breathing. Deep, slow rhythmic breathing. This emotional management strategy has been proven effective in studies conducted in military combat, yoga studios, and psychotherapy sessions.

Here’s how to breathe when you’re in a challenging situation:

  1. Inhale deeply through your nose, expanding your diaphragm, while counting off 4 seconds: one one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand, four one thousand.
  2. Hold that deep breath, counting off another 4 seconds.
  3. Exhale all of the air slowly through your mouth, contracting your diaphragm to a 4 second countdown.
  4. Hold that empty breath contraction, repeating the 4 second mantra.

If you discover that this exercise is difficult to do properly when you’re experiencing minimal stress, you’ll need to practice it until you can complete it easily. Do it during the day sitting at your desk, and at night watching TV or going to bed. Increase the challenge by practicing when you’re driving, beginning with normal conditions and working up to managing your reaction to being cut off in traffic.

Brenda and Terry did their breathing homework and became quite good at short-circuiting their angry reactions whenever they had the slightest inkling that anger was beginning to build. Then they went to step 2 – accessing the mental picture of their positive outcome – by asking “What would it look like if we found a win-win solution for dealing with the kids?”

Because Brenda had a mental image of the new behavior she wanted to use pre-programmed in her mind, it became possible for her consciously control her responses when she felt Terry was criticizing her: “If you don’t like what’s going with getting the kids to _______ (eat their dinner, take their bath, go to bed, etc.), how do you propose we deal with the situation?” Terry’s vision of he and Brenda working as a team to manage difficult situations prepared him to offer effective suggestions.