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Why can behaviour be so hard to change?

The origins of the human brain track back to our primitive ancestors.

Early human beings lived a fairly simple life based on physical survival. Their brains needed to be particularly attuned to threats in the environment, such as larger predators (e.g. lions) so that a survival strategy could be implemented quickly to avoid certain death.

An advantage our ancestors had, was an ability to problem-solve and communicate at a seemingly superior level to other species. So in the case of a lion attacking, humans could have a variety of strategies to avoid being killed, including warning each other of an approaching threat, hiding somewhere high a lion cannot reach, repelling the lion with fire, or wounding it with a man-made weapon.

This level of problem-solving placed humans in an advantageous position where intellect could outsmart brawn.

The same problem-solving capacity exists in modern human beings. Of course, there are variations in this capacity depending on age, health and IQ, but in general, we have a rational mind that can understand information and address black-and-white problems. We tend to assume that once a level of rational understanding or logic is demonstrated then this should help us to deal with difficult situations.

We can tell ourselves that a tiny spider is harmless and definitely non-venomous (after identifying it) and logically think “it can’t harm me”. But is this what always happens? For quite a few, the answer is no, and no matter how hard we try to tell ourselves we’re safe, an anxious and somewhat irrational emotional reaction occurs each time a spider is encountered. Why does this happen? Because the part of the brain that is responsible for survival through fight, flight, or freeze, activates first, and in doing so, partially deactivates the logical part of the brain (the frontal lobe).

No matter how much we would like logic to prevail in this scenario, the primal instinct to protect (no matter how misdirected it is), wins every time. Even though the actual level of danger is quite low, the perception is one of threat, usually because there has been some early life programming that created the irrational fear.

The fear will keep winning out unless the subconscious programming is addressed. This is a very important example of why individuals find it so hard to heal phobias or change ingrained patterns.

Now consider the above example when it comes to changing a child’s irrational fear of reactive behaviour.

Children under the age of 8 years old have not developed the ability to self-reflect or self-monitor. And even after the age of 8, a young person’s ability to discern rationally is generally immature in nature until at least their mid-teen years. In many situations, a triggering situation occurs, the fight/flight/freeze response is activated, and the child does not respond to logic or rationality no matter how compelling a parent/caregivers reassurance is. The child’s brain has been hijacked by the survival mechanism and has almost no chance to learn or self-regulate at that moment. The parent assumes that there is some magic parenting strategy they are missing, but they are not.

When emotional dysregulation is in full flight there is little that can be done but to be accepting, comforting and wait it out – an important lesson to apply to both children and adults alike.