My husband and I just returned from three weeks of trekking in Nepal. And although there were many 'eye-opening' experiences, one of them was quite unexpected. I got a real-life, experiential understanding of what it really takes for our brains and bodies to adopt new patterns. Patterns of any kind. And it boils down to 3 key elements:
Weathering some natural, initial resistance.
Consistent, repetitive exposure over time.
And most importantly, applying and putting the new pattern to use along the way.
First a quick refresher - a brain and body "pattern" is something that's repeated so often that it gets adopted by our brain to run 'automatically'. This can include repeated thoughts, repeated body functions, repeatedly experienced body weights, and yes, even repeated cycles of emotional activation. Our brains and bodies do this to optimize the limited cellular energy we have to function as a human. Repeating patterns is very energy-efficient for our brains and bodies. Learning new things, or creating a new pattern is energy-expensive. That is, until the new experience, behavior or function is repeated enough times that our brains determine it's not going away, so it may as well be adopted and made to run automatically...again, to save energy.
On this trip to the Himalayas, I experienced new pattern creation firsthand through exposure to new altitude, exposure to new sleep-wake cycles and by choosing a new focus for my brain's attention (which I'll elaborate on in a minute). And when I took a closer look at the factors that really made all three of these 'travel adaptations' happen, I saw that it was actually the same process that gets our brains and bodies to adopt a new emotional response pattern. Which is great news because...
...if we can understand the brain-body's learning process with subjects we're more familiar with (like altitude adaptation), then we can apply this knowledge in the same way to other areas we're working to change or refine as well. Specifically, we can transfer this understanding of pattern change to help us get faster, more sustainable results in our emotional development.
Let me elaborate.
The Back Story
Being mountain-lovers, Nepal was a place my husband and I have wanted to see and experience for almost twenty years. We spent twelve glorious days without email, phone calls or screens (although I did take a lot of photos with my phone, which you can see on my travel blog page Paradox Travel).
What I noticed soon after we landed in Lukla (9,383' in elevation or 2859m) , was that my brain and body had some initial resistance – both to the new altitude and time zone, as well as to switching out of my ‘thinking brain’ and more fully into to my physical senses.
Although I do a better job these days at integrating both intellect-based work and more sensory-relational areas of my life….I still was coming off a pattern of functioning that my brain and body were used to and familiar with.
Although at home, I can easily switch to 'sensory-relational' mode in the evening or weekends, my daytime brain pattern includes a lot of research, reading, writing, and ‘thinking’ as a large part of my work day.
Physiologically, I also currently live close to sea level and my ‘body clock’ has a sleep-wake pattern currently set to Pacific Standard time (PST).
In Nepal, I was now asking my brain and body to let go of those patterns, both physiologically and mentally.
I was asking my brain to let go of ‘thinking’ and processing ideas, thoughts and words and just ‘be’ in my immediate senses.
I was asking my brain to take in my surroundings through physical movement, through my eyes, through my nose, my skin and my breath.
I didn’t bring one single book to read or podcast to listen to for when I had free time.
When I had free time, I simply sat.
In other words, I asked my brain to slow down and pay attention to my body sensations and take in my immediate surroundings instead. And at first it was hard. Why?
Because as we've learned about in the Whole-Brain Relationships class, my brain and body had an old pattern that it was used to running. A pattern that it had automated and required far less effort and far less energy to run.
And on top of that, I was also asking my brain and body to adopt a new sleep-wake cycle and the way it processed oxygen at this different elevation. A triple 'whammy' of new pattern adaptation!
So let's break this down by looking closer at the more familiar and obvious pattern change example: altitude. Starting when we landed, (9k feet or 2800 meters ) and then as we worked our way up to 17,000’ (5100 meters) over the 7- 8 days of trekking….. this forced new pattern adaptation was something my brain and body definitely had something to say about! Said differently, my brain and body initially resisted. But when it comes to new patterns, some initial resistance is natural and actually part of how our brain processes 'conflict' or anything it sees as new and different. So what does this natural resistance look like?
Some initial resistance is natural
Natural initial resistance symptoms to the new, more energy-consuming altitude came in the form of shortness of breath while standing still, poor sleep, lethargy and an occasional headache. My brain and body definitely was expending more energy to adapt to this new pattern! So it initially tried to cling to the old way it processed oxygen. The one it used when I was at sea level.
Natural initial resistance to the new time zone came in the form of my eyes popping open at 2am and then my alertness fading around 3pm, as my brain tried to lure me back to the PST time zone pattern is was far more familiar with.
Natural initial resistance to staying in my present senses came in the form of habitually reaching for my phone and kindle for 'something to read', thinking I 'should' be doing something, and reflexively leaving the present moment, and returning to thoughts of 'tomorrow' and 'yesterday' as my brain tried to coax me back to the more energy-efficient patterns of intellect-based functioning that it was used to.
Pattern change of any kind, especially in the beginning? It’s not for the faint of heart! I mean, you have to want the end result pretty bad, to stick through the initial discomfort of resistance that your brain and body naturally goes through. But we did. So we were patient and willing to weather the initial discomfort.
Then something shifted
So...it started a bit rough, but what do you think happened over the following three weeks of that 'forced' exposure to new altitude, forced exposure to a new time zone and a chosen new way of experiencing the world? My brain and body started to adapt. And it started to adopt the new pattern as its default. Why? Because automating the new pattern took less energy than processing the conflict.
I gradually slept later and stayed awake longer.
It got easier to just sit still and ‘do’ nothing,
My breathing got easier, my headaches subsided.
And what made the transition faster was the fact that I was functionally using the new pattern along the way.
Let's dig into that last one.
Accelerating the process
I could have sat still in one village for three weeks waiting for my lungs to adapt before I went hiking. But I didn't. At each level of adaptation, I did a short 'practice' hike. In other words, I put that new, developing pattern into practice. That’s why it took less time to acclimate than it would have if I hadn't hiked a little at each altitude.
When it came to the new sleep-wake cycle, I didn’t just go to sleep when I was tired and wake up when I was done sleeping regardless of time, just waiting until my body clock got itself sorted out on its own. I put my new waking hours to use. I lived and applied the new pattern, eating meals on the new time schedule, doing daytime activities when the sun was out and sleeping when it was dark, regardless of what time zone my brain was telling me to stick with. Doing this may seem obvious when we're talking about time zones. But did you realize that's an example of reinforcing new pattern adaptation by overlaying matching behavior?
Functionally using a new pattern as you are learning it or being exposed to it, accelerates your brain's adoption (learning) process.
Repetition gives you an advantage
Granted, I did have a bit of an advantage.
Over the years, my brain and body has had several previous experiences at high altitude and has had to adapt its physiology to higher elevation before. But the cool thing is, the more often I expose myself to elevation and experience this adaptation, the quicker it adapts the next time. Why is that? Because my brain-body had a previous physiological pattern to reference. And if this pattern had a title, it would be something like "what we do to process oxygen at high altitude".
This is how our brain and body work with pretty much every new neuro-physiological function. And that includes our patterns of thinking, our patterns of behavior as well as our patterns of emotional response.
So, once the brain and body's new experience is functionally put to use enough times and for long enough periods of time.... this pattern of "what we do in this situation" gets saved, automated and referenced more easily for the next time by our brain. So does this mean that altitude adaptation is instantaneous for me now? Hardly. Remember, I still spend most of my time at sea level. That's my body's preferred, energy-efficient pattern at the moment. So unless I moved to Nepal where this adaptation was supported daily and put to use, my acclimatization is temporary. Does the rate or pace of acclimatization the same for everyone? No. For some bodies, it's a slower, more gradual process. Still the same process, just more gradual. We're all a bit different. But if you're working against a self-concept that says "My body just can't adjust to altitude!", well....you may have relevant, limiting thought pattern working against you that you may need to address first.
Creating patterns for energy-efficiency is part of our natural, neuro-physical DESIGN.
INITIAL RESISTANCE by our brain in natural because energy-efficiency is important and old established patterns take less energy to run than new ones do to create.
Exposure to something new, over time and repetition, is what creates NEW PATTERNS.
And if you FUNCTIONALLY USE those new patterns as they are being created (practice), the process is ACCELERATED. And finally....
Pattern change won't last unless it's SUPPORTED and used in your DAILY life. Let's cover that below, and then wrap it up.
The real world difference
There is one big difference between new altitude pattern adaptation and new emotional response pattern adaptation. And its the reason why getting out there and putting our growth work into practice along the way in our marriages, friendships and work relations make such a big difference: Altitude adaptation is an immersive, continuous process. For new emotional state adaptation, we don't get that continuous immersion while working and living in the real world. Very few of us can just run away and isolate ourselves in a Buddhist temple or ashram for a few months to refine our emotional state. The real world won't automatically provide continual, non-stop exposure to the emotional state we’re trying to adopt.
Altitude is an environmental condition that forces continual exposure. It's the equivalent of showing up at work and finding the office has been rearranged and nothing is where it used to be. You'd grumble a bit (natural resistance) and initially waste a lot of time and energy learning the new locations. But you can still do your work. Perhaps slower at first. But you could still function. And eventually, by the nature of unchanged, continual exposure to the new layout, you'd adapt. And you'd adapt a lot faster by functionally fumbling around until you found the things you needed than you would through just memorizing a map of the new office.
When it comes to emotional refinement, creating and strengthening new thought patterns and learning to differentiate our emotional response so it has a new pattern of activation.... we have the additional challenge of doing it within a real-world environment that can activate old patterns! We're learning and teaching our brains and bodies something new...and then going out into the real world of our life to put it into action. This is similar to how many higher education classes have ‘labs’ that go along with them: you learn something in lecture, then put it into practice in the lab, galvanizing the new lecture-learning with experiential practice.
So this is why emotional and thought pattern change can take longer than an immersive mental or physiological experience like adjusting to higher-altitude. Most of us only have maybe an hour a day at most to dedicate fully to the new pattern or refinement process. And then we have to put it into functional practice right away when we go to work or interact with our families. A TOUGH arena to work in! But it's also why when you do it this way - learning, then applying immediately to your life - your new thought and emotional response patterns will last longer and transfer across many different situations.
So whatever you're learning, do it daily and put it to immediate use with practice.
If you're gaining altitude.... hike in it.
If you're changing time zones.....eat breakfast at 7am and go to bed at 10pm local time.
If you're working daily at refining your emotional state....practice using it in your relationships and interactions along the way, every day.
And expect a little initial resistance. It's natural.
Just keep exposing yourself to the new experience that you want to become a pattern, as often as you can. And put it into functional use along the way.
Do this repeatedly and consistently and the new pattern that you're working towards, will be far more sustainable, transferrable and will improve your relationships along the way.
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