Adaptability – Healthy? Not?
Adaptability for us humans can be our greatest strength and it can be our greatest weakness.
We adapted to life after ice ages and cataclysmic events. We adapted to every environment on earth. We adapted to every category of foods - from meat to vegetables to grains, to fungi, to fish. We adapt to adversity and survive, even thrive. We adapt where other species go extinct. This is wonderful and will keep us around till the end of time.
We also adapt to pain, abuse, stress, and unhealthy conditions of our own making. This is not good. It allows us to continue in states of dis-ease. Our limbic systems, or survival brains, adapt by making the abnormal into normal
For instance, this is what happens during the addictive process. When the brain reward system is stimulated to extraordinary degrees, either by drugs or behaviors, the limbic system creates a new baseline of what is a normal amount of stimulation. Unfortunately, it also remembers how good the excessive stimulation felt, and that sets up the craving that is a key factor in addiction.
We also see maladaptive patterns develop in abusive situations. It’s like the story of the frog in the hot water. Throw a frog into boiling water and it jumps right out. Put it in cool water and slowly heat it and the frog will adapt until it boils to death. Interpersonal violence and abuse usually start this way – a victim is lured into the relationship and, when the abuse begins, they make excuses and adapt. Finally, they are living with a level of cruelty and mistreatment that they could never have imagined themselves tolerating.
In any situation where adaptation has become intrinsically harmful, the prefrontal cortex – thinking and reasoning brain – is co-opted into making excuses, rationalizing the irrational, feeling pride in the ability to tolerate pain, and even creating the thoughts that lead to the stimulation.
As a therapist, I see my job as removing barriers to optimal mental health. That means looking at each person’s entire life, not just a section of it, and identifying what is getting in the way of the individual’s goals. How have they adapted to stressors in the past that now prevents peace and joy in the present and future? This involves not just talk therapy, which takes place in the prefrontal cortex, but non-talk therapeutic interventions, such as EMDR or brain-spotting, to get into the limbic system and file the past away on the brain’s hard drive so the individual can make clear decisions now.
I challenge you to explore your own life and, as we approach a new year, consider how you have adapted to the various aspects of your life – family, partners, work, leisure, and health – and make a Vision Board. What do you want your life to be? What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of world do you want to create for yourself?
Then live that life, be that person, and live in that world.
Be In Light