February 9, 2021 7 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
To form new habits, you must lay the foundation to build new neurological highways, ensuring they are well-established and well-maintained. These new highways help you close the gap between who you are and who you need to become to reach your goals. The more your mind travels these new paths, the easier they are to take, until they unconsciously lead you to success. Once they are firmly embedded in your memory and experiences, your need to use willpower to force change diminishes, and change becomes easy.
Attempting to force yourself to change through sheer willpower can result in building negative neural pathways. Your brain views your goals as a threat because it requires too much energy to process the unknown factors surrounding it. This could trigger your fight-or-flight response because the goal is located outside your comfort zone, and you end up “snapping back” into your old self. While your subconscious mind is screaming, “It’s going to kill you! Danger, danger, Will Robinson!” your conscious mind rationalizes the conflict and decides the goal is “too hard.” Thus you have come up with an excuse that has nothing to do with the underlying cause.
The response “most traveled” will eventually become your default response, whether it positively or negatively impacts your real-world outcomes. Because it’s triggered while your mind is in fight-or-flight mode, this behavior becomes unconscious and can sabotage your success beneath the surface. To change our behavior and ensure we reach our goals, we must make a conscious choice while we are in our logical/rational mindset. After we have traversed this road repeatedly, it then becomes a “positive unconscious behavior” that naturally leads to success. When we first attempt to travel down a new highway, it can feel incredibly uncomfortable. The unknown requires huge amounts of mental energy to process. Although going back to your old patterns could prevent you from reaching your goal, it’s still easier for your brain than learning something new. Furthermore, our tendency to repeat negative behaviors amplifies when we hit decision fatigue and our brain goes into self-preservation mode. Our objective is to demolish these old dysfunctional highways and build new ones, using a strategic, long-lasting approach that works without activating your fight-or-flight response.
In my 90-day mission to become unstoppable, I used the latest wearable technology to reprogram my mind for success. Years of exhaustion, depression and anxiety anxiety had me living in self-preservation mode. It took real effort to turn it off, and even then, it would only switch off for a short time before coming back on again. My identity devolved into a person who didn’t believe I could reach my goals. I made decisions out of fear that painfully delayed my progress by years.
So let’s look at how traumatic life experiences can shape our behavior decades after the events have been forgotten. While these events may not seem traumatic to others, perception is personal, and your response to a situation deserves respect. Fear isn’t always rational — unless you’re staring down the face of a Category 5 hurricane.
Break the pattern of negative behaviors
When you experience a traumatic event, your fight-or-flight response is triggered. This creates new neurological pathways that apply meaning to this event: fear, sadness, anxiety, grief or anger. Your emotions are amplified in this primal state as your system is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing the likelihood of it being committed to your long-term memory, both consciously and subconsciously. This reaction is meant to keep you safe and on high alert to future life/death situations despite the real/perceived danger having passed.
If similar events occur in the future that remind you of this experience (through sight, sound, smell, taste or touch), your brain defaults to those old neurological pathways and responds based on your previous experiences. The past event is its reference point for future ones. Because this highway has been traveled repeatedly before, it’s easy for your brain to default to it.
In essence, you may be reacting to the old event out of habit, not the current one out of fear. This physiological programming shapes the way we behave in every aspect of our lives, even if we attempt to convince ourselves it doesn’t. It’s like playing the same old album on repeat. It becomes comfortable. It reinforces who we believe ourselves to be, despite being in conflict with who we need to become to reach our goals. Hence, an internal battle for one’s self continues until we select a new soundtrack for our life.
When we short-circuit these neurological pathways and form new ones, we can quickly dismantle our fears and phobias. Change becomes easy, freeing us from our self-imposed limitations and allowing us to transform into the person we know we can become. It is often only in hindsight that we are aware of how our behavior has been impacted by this change. When you’re in a mental state of fight-or-flight, you see everything through an emotional, fear-filled lens. Your emotions become amplified, and sometimes uncontrollable. In this state, others may tell you to “calm down and breathe deeply.” This can be completely ineffectual because your logical mind is not in control. You may sometimes be able to talk yourself out of it, or a pleasant distraction may interrupt the pattern.
Obliterating fear and finding your purpose
But other times, your pattern may need to run until the adrenaline is released. The more often we allow stress to activate our fight-or-flight response, the harder it can be to rationalize fears we may have about stepping out of our comfort zones. If your goal engages your fight-or-flight response because it makes you feel too uncomfortable, your brain may come to view it as a real life-or-death situation. If this happens, you will forever be caught in a tug of war between who you are and who you want to become. Your identity gap will be harder to close, and you will feel out of alignment. There’s a constant battle between your primal brain’s need to keep you safe and your spiritual side’s need for you to shine.
I haven’t met anyone who hasn’t faced this struggle at some point in their lives. There’s no more painful way to live than fighting against your own primal instincts. And, as we’ve discovered, nutritional deficiencies, inflammation, medications and more can amplify and even trigger your fight-or-flight response. When you address these problems first, managing the psychological side becomes much easier because you spend less time in fight-or-flight mode. Repeatedly experiencing fight-or-flight can manifest all types of unusual behavior that can sabotage your success, including:
- Avoidance behavior. Putting off what you need to get done by spending countless hours scrolling through social media or watching TV. This can also include overworking so you don’t have to deal with a situation in your personal life.
- Changes in mood. Becoming angry or moody without knowing why and lashing out at others in an uncharacteristic way.
- Increased anxiety. This includes everything from racing heartbeat, fidgeting and pacing to withdrawing from others and an inability to focus, all to keep yourself distracted from what’s truly at play.
- Identity shift. Switching into Guardian and Defender mode and beginning to think you’re the kind of person who just doesn’t reach their goals or get what they want.
This last one is the most detrimental one of all, but thankfully — and in any of the above instances — through nutrition and brain training, there is a way forward.