Feeling Stuck and Rerouting the Mind’s Riverbeds by Dr. Alicia H. Clark
What is the most common complaint from people who come to see me for therapy?
Whether you feel stuck in a relationship, a repeated behavior, or another particular life situation, it isn’t hard to feel hopeless when you sense you need to break out of a pattern and don’t know how. It is almost as if one is in “dysfunctional autopilot,” where a collection of unhealthy thoughts and behaviors become habit, controlling your life and causing you to feel powerless, and ultimately, stuck.
Consider a daughter who grew up striving to earn her father’s love and approval, a reward he bestowed upon her only when she achieved an impressive accomplishment. In her adult relationships with men, she continually finds herself associating love with having to prove herself, and feeling unworthy of unconditional love. She will likely be drawn to men, like her father, who make her work for their love and approval, or withhold their attention and availability from her conditionally. Why does she look to repeat her father-daughter relationship in her own adult relationships, and what can she do to stop this pattern?
The Mind’s Riverbeds
Psychologists understand that adult behavior is largely the result of patterns laid down early in life that, over the years, is strengthened through repetition.
I like to think of these patterns as riverbeds of our mind. Over time, the water naturally continues to flow along the same path, the crevices deepening and widening. Similarly, neural pathways are forged in our brains early in life, creating new tributaries and sending the “water” flowing in a different direction, each time strengthening the riverbeds.
That is, unless we consciously alter the neural activity flow.
Our minds, like flowing water, tend to seek the path of least resistance. This way, we conserve our thoughts and attention for other demands. Just as water flow begets further water flow by strengthening pathways, or riverbeds, so too do our experiences lay down pathways for our impulses to follow for future experiences.
Psychologists aren’t the only ones interested in this phenomenon. In January, 2015, the NY Times published an extensive report about Harvard theoretical physics PhD, and MIT Professor, Sebastian Seung – partially funded by the US government’s Brain Initiative at Princeton – who is mapping the neural structures of the brain, also known as the “connectome.” Seung invokes the metaphor of riverbeds in describing his work, noting that he is particularly interested in where the rivers leave their marks. A Herculean task, creating a connectome would provide a “wiring diagram,” mapping all the connections within an organism’s nervous system. The eventual results of this research will be fascinating for scientifically understanding the phenomena psychologists see in action:
Our brain’s neural connectivity might be more like riverbeds than we ever imagined – our past experiences guiding our thoughts and experiences like a riverbed guides water.
Sometimes, like strong water current, we don’t feel that we can control the direction of our thoughts, feelings, and actions. As a result, we feel powerless. This powerless feeling can be so powerful that we forget that we, as humans, are not rivers, and therefore, can change direction. We do have control over our own actions and our own lives. This brain activity is what Professor Seung’s research appears to be proving.
Habits, and Teaching a Dog New Tricks: Automaticity & Plasticity
In addition to the neural proof about brain “riverbeds,” a concept called “automaticity” addresses how the brain accommodates new learning by automating repeated reactions so that attention and thoughts can be available for other brain activity. In other words, some reactions become automated habits in order to free us up to focus on new demands on our minds.
Similarly, new learning involves a separate but related process whereby the brain builds new connections and new pathways throughout life, a concept referred to in neuroscience as “plasticity.” They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, however, we humans are indeed capable of learning new tricks, thanks to our brain’s plasticity. This combination of automaticity and plasticity is how we adapt, and ultimately grow.
What fires together wires together” is an oft-used phrase in neuroscience to describe how our brains lay down neural connections that are strengthened and made more efficient with use. The brain adapts because of its capacity to build new pathways, and we can harness this. In order to forge new riverbed tributaries to create new behaviors, thoughts and feelings all we need is to start having new, productive thoughts, feelings and actions, and keep doing so in order to create a new habit. “
In order to apply the concepts of the connectotome, automaticity and plasticity, we look to early relationship patterns for glimpses into our riverbed topography.
In considering the daughter in the example above, we would predict that her relationship with her dad was at its best when she received the coveted reward of his demonstrated love and approval. Nothing was better, nothing was sweeter, nothing made her feel more whole, and she would never stop loving that feeling – not even in adulthood. Consciously or unconsciously she is bound to want to experience that feeling again, and she will continue seek it. When she finds it, chances are pretty high that this feeling will come along in the context of a relationship with a person who is a lot like her father. However, the cost to her self-esteem and happiness might lead her to instead consciously seek out partners who are capable of giving her what she really wants – acceptance and love.
Forging new connections, new tributaries or even dams are the ways we learn to reroute our new experiences away from past riverbeds that prevent us from attaining healthier lifestyles.
We can learn to recognize that a present situation might be similar to a situation in the past, but it is NOT something we have to repeat. With conscious, thoughtful behavior, rather than an automatic reaction that is a vestige of a more vulnerable time or situation, we force our thoughts towards new, desirable, tributaries. While this relearning might feel overwhelming, it is absolutely possible with consciousness, time and effort, just like learning to love someone who loves you unconditionally for you, and not only for your accomplishments.
Unlike the water that flows through riverbeds, our thoughts and actions are directable: Thanks to plasticity, new neural pathways can, and are, formed all the time. By exercising and practicing our most prized capability – the ability to choose our own thoughts, behaviors, and feelings –we can build new riverbeds that can become as automatic as driving a car.
Recognizing that we can re-channel our thinking allows us to no longer be passive to our “buttons” being pushed. By rerouting our reactions away from the old, painful riverbeds, we forge new pathways into new, adaptive and productive directions. We no longer feel stuck – rather, we feel empowered to move forward in whichever ways suit us best.
Alicia H. Clark, PsyD, PLLC
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Washington, DC Private Practice since 1999
Assistant Professor, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology, Washington, DC campus
National Register Credentialed since 2008
Member, American Psychological Association