The Battlefield Of The Mind
Long before we ever engage in outward behaviors, the war is waged in the battlefield of the mind. We spend so much time correcting what is considered inappropriate behavior with consequences and repercussions, yet how much effort are we really investing in understanding why we do what we do?
I owned an autism treatment center for a little over a decade. One of the many roles I engaged in was teaching behavior modification workshops to parents, schools, and caretakers. Understanding why individuals were behaving as they were was absolutely paramount in determining how to eliminate the negative conduct in question. Most of these children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD’s) had limited verbal ability, so they were unable to articulate what they were thinking or feeling at any given time. This made understanding their behaviors all the more difficult.
Punishment And Consequences Don’t Always Equal Resolution
The common misconception was that if an unwanted behavior was punished, the consequences would deter any future behavior that was similar. This can be true in certain situations, but not all. In order for a consequence to be effective, the offender must be able to tie that consequence to the specific behavior, connecting the dots, so to speak. If a behavior is reactive in nature, as opposed to purposefully planned defiance, rarely will that be tied to a specific negative consequence successfully. The majority of the time, these children were not engaging in behaviors simply to manipulate outcomes or garner attention. They were engaging in them because they were overwhelmed and their emotional and sensory systems were out of control, which had detrimental physical and behavioral outcomes. Unless the underlying problems that were overwhelming their systems were addressed, there would be no resolution in sight, no matter what consequences were put in place. I found it rather interesting, as time and time again these punishment methods were employed, yet progress was never seen. Caretakers were simply upping the ante, increasing the degree of punishment each time, hoping that if things got severe enough, eventually they could put the undesirable behavior behind them. As I said, it never worked. What we ended up seeing were exhausted and frustrated caretakers, and even more behaviors from the kids in question, because the underlying problems were never addressed and resolved, but their anxiety was continually increasing.
What We Think Is Irrelevant If It’s Incorrect
One of the biggest issues in truly getting to the core of a behavior is taking our own perspective out of the equation and relying on data instead. You could have 10 different individuals observe a particular behavior and when asked, you would likely get at least 7 different reasons as to why they thought this person was engaging in this conduct. This is not unusual, as each individual was processing the situation based on their personal experiences and viewpoint. Without a doubt, those items played a profound role in arriving at their conclusions. The issue here is that it makes no difference what we “think” is going on in someone’s head that is driving the behavior. What matters is what is really going on, and getting to the core of that can take a little time and investigative work. The bottom line here is that what we think is totally irrelevant if it’s incorrect.
Identifying Causes Requires A Hard Look
One of the core tools used was called an ABC sheet. A = The Antecedent – which is what happened before the behavior occurred. B = The Behavior itself. C = The Consequence – What was the actual consequence that was put in place when this behavior occurred? In so many cases, it was necessary to take a long, hard look at many days or even weeks of data before an underlying cause could actually be determined. It’s also important to recognize that many times the individuals were not able to articulate what they were feeling and why they were engaging in these behaviors, so trying to pry information out of them was rarely fruitful and more often than not, just increased anxiety and agitation further.
It’s All About Safety And Preservation
As an example, we had a child that was having some pretty serious meltdowns in the classroom. This child would throw furniture, throw himself on the ground, hitting and kicking anyone that tried to intervene, and refused to be consoled. This not only endangered the child, but other children in the classroom as well. The teacher was unable to identify any immediate or apparent trigger that was precipitating these events, so she would just restrain the child and eventually have him removed from the classroom until he was calmed and safe to return. After a brief period of taking data, she began recognizing a pattern that these incidents only happened on Thursdays in the afternoon. As I began laying out more pieces of the puzzle for her, she finally recognized that this child had severe Sensory Integration Dysfunction (SID). He could not tolerate anything contacting his hands that felt cold or wet. He had been forced to participate in finger painting in art class several weeks prior. For someone who has severe SID to be forced to participate in an aversive activity, was not only traumatizing at the time (physically and emotionally), but it created severe anxiety about the possibility of this happening again if he attended art class in the future. From that point on, every Thursday afternoon, slightly before it was time to go to art class, his anxiety totally overwhelmed him and the resulting behaviors exploded, as he had no way to effectively articulate what he was feeling. In his mind, and for his believed safety, he would do whatever was necessary to insure he never had to go to art class again.
Once Adrenaline Starts, Logic Goes Out The Window
Keep in mind this is not a logical process. When an adrenaline-based, fight or flight response happens in the body, all logic goes out the window and the brain is only capable of processing what’s necessary to keep us safe. It doesn’t matter that this was not a true life or death situation, his brain was not recognizing that difference and hence, placed him in a reactive state to ward off future danger, whether it was imagined or otherwise. To the untrained eye, he looked like a total brat that was simply misbehaving and striving for attention. Many would have written it off as such and just punished him for his poor behavior. Punishing that behavior would have only increased anxiety, which in turn would have increased the behavior significantly, not to mention traumatize him further. It also would have never addressed the issues at the core of the behavior. Once the teacher realized the cause, she was able to appropriately address it and the behavior subsided.
Our Ability To Articulate Shuts Down With Fear
This is no different for the rest of us! Unlike many individuals who have ASD’s and are unable to speak, we may have the physical and neurological capability to be verbal, yet when we are fearful or under stress, many of us completely lose our ability to articulate what we are feeling and how it’s impacting us on a physical or emotional level. This is huge! There’s a silent battle being waged within, as thoughts, judgments, and justifications fly through our noggin at warp speed, yet the ability to externally articulate what’s happening is often inhibited. Once anxiety and adrenaline kick in, communication breaks down and we resort to behaviors to simply protect ourselves. Again, logic goes out the window once adrenaline starts pumping. That’s behavior 101! Once communication shuts down, illogical behaviors can manifest in numerous ways and most of them are far from pretty. It’s usually only in hindsight that we begin to ruminate on things said or done, embarrassed by our responses, chastising ourselves, and desiring we had reciprocated differently. The difficulty here is that recognizing the issue after the fact can often be too late if our behavior created disharmony and the door has been closed to future opportunities.
Would Of, Could Of, Should Of… The Merry Go Round Of Rumination
I know we have all found ourselves at one time or another in the place where we walk away from a confrontational situation thinking of a million things we should have said at the time, but were just totally blank or too scared to speak. It isn’t until we are later removed from the source of stress that our logical mind kicks back into gear, giving us those witty come backs or vital information we wish we could have hurled at our opposition in the heat of the moment! These scenarios don’t only happen when we encounter hostility. Often times, they happen when we encounter opportunities for vulnerability and openness that leave us feeling emotionally naked and exposed. Fear is fear, and it hijacks our responses the same way whether we feel physically threatened, or overwhelmingly vulnerable. Adrenaline doesn’t care which side of the emotional coin is visible, it simply reacts regardless.
What’s Flipping Your Adrenaline Switch?
It’s to our advantage to better spend our time identifying and addressing the underlying triggers that flip our adrenaline switch, rather than just berating ourselves for behaving badly. If we don’t get to the place where we are able to bypass adrenaline and maintain effective communication, we greatly impair the ability to forge deep, meaningful, intimate relationships with others, as we never venture out of protective mode. We also rarely build self-esteem and confidence when our only response to difficulty is shut down mode.
A Detour Around Shutting Down
There are many ways to begin addressing the battlefield of the mind. One of my favorite books on this subject is called, “The Brain Mechanic” by Spencer Lord. I highly recommend this book. He very clearly identifies many of the devastating internal dialogs we continually run that contribute to our overwhelm and shut downs, as well as very proactive ways to detour that entire process. Understanding why our brains react the way they do and learning helpful exercises to challenge and rewire our automatic responses is incredibly helpful. Having the discernment and tools to employ is definitely beneficial, yet an even more important piece of advice here is to practice, practice, practice! In order to improve, we have to identify “safe” people we can practice with. I cannot begin to tell you the importance of processing the situations that make you uncomfortable with someone who will lovingly and with great patience and grace give you the opportunities to mess up and try your approach again and again, until you can come in for a smooth landing! For some of you, that may be a coach or a counselor who can work through these issues with you. For others it may be a close friend or relative who will assist you. What I can promise you is that the more you practice continuing to walk through difficult waters, rather than shutting down, the easier it becomes. That does not mean you will never experience discomfort. I still deal with that on a fairly regular basis, although nowhere to the degree I used to. What I experience now is more slight discomfort, but a recognition that if I keep talking and keep processing, I will work through that and resolve any anxiety I might be feeling in pretty short order. What I’ve learned is that when you are walking through hell… keep walking and you’ll eventually reach the other side! If you stop, you’ll be living in hell for a while! Keep walking! I’ve also learned that actually doing the emotional work is far less painful than the THOUGHT of doing the work. We have a tendency to work things up to a far more devastating degree in our minds than will ever play out in real life. Keeping this in perspective is always constructive.
My hope for each of us today is that we all identify “safe” people in our lives to have these discussions with. I’m seriously considering hosting a weekly discussion group to address some of these issues as well. If this is something you would be interested in, please message me and let me know. If there’s enough interest, it’s certainly something I will look at starting.
Love & Light,
Laura Lum Corby