• Claire Hunter

7 Simple Ways to Shift out of Autopilot

In the last blog I wrote, I talked a little bit about the importance of getting out of autopilot. It’s so central to the notion of mindfulness, that I thought some tips about how to shift out of this mode, might be helpful.

The whole premise of mindfulness is about intentionally disengaging from automatic pilot. When we do this, we then have the opportunity to respond in a way of our choosing, rather than engaging in fight/ flight/freeze responses, or in unhelpful thinking patterns. The term automatic pilot describes a situation where we act without conscious intention or awareness. The ability to act on autopilot is highly developed. It gives us a huge evolutionary advantage, but it also creates our vulnerability to emotional suffering.

Automatic pilot does have its uses. It enables us to carry out complex and demanding tasks with little mental effort. The fact that we don’t have to give much conscious attention to tasks such as walking, typing, driving or talking enables us to carry out hundreds of complex tasks every day without ‘blowing a fuse’.

This tendency to autopilot is also a very good thing when we face a situation that has the potential to physically harm us, because it enables us to act without having to think about it. For example, if you miss a step going down the stairs, you don’t have to issue an instruction to grab the bannister, it just happens.

Imagine a situation where you’re driving to work on a busy road. A car filtering in from a side road pulls out sharply in front of you causing you to break hard, and what’s worse, they don’t even acknowledge you. What’s your reaction? Do you sound your horn, gesticulate or get angry with them? What are you likely to be thinking? They’re rude, aggressive, inconsiderate? How will this affect your mood? Will it have any impact on the rest of your journey, perhaps causing you drive closely to the car in front in order to avoid anyone else pulling in. Now imagine a different situation. You’re at work and get a call from your 5 year old’s school. Your child has fallen over in the playground and been knocked unconscious. It’s rush hour and you need to drive to the nearest hospital to meet the ambulance. You pull out sharply in front of a car in your rush to get to the hospital. You’re consumed with anxiety about your child and all you can concentrate on is your desperation to see them. Does this mean you are rude, aggressive or inconsiderate? You might say not, and that the situation was the cause of your behaviour, not your personality.

As human beings, we have a tendency to ascribe someone’s behaviour to their personality rather than a temporary situation. In psychology, this is called ‘fundamental attribution error’. We don’t usually stop to consider what might have caused the behaviour, and thus often act on automatic pilot.

The tendency to react automatically is clearly a good thing when we’re faced with physical danger, but the problem comes when we manage our emotional life on automatic pilot. A lot of the time we over-estimate the threat present in everyday events and respond as though it is something highly dangerous to our survival. All of this is done in a split second, often without us being conscious of the process, and our response often makes matters worse. In the example above, we might start to drive too closely to the car in front in an attempt to prevent being cut up again, or we might stop being generous to other drivers because we’re so aggravated by the situation.

Unless we can be mindful about our thinking patterns and emotional responses to something, it’s highly likely that it will affect our behaviour, which can often make matters worse.

If any of this rings true, here are some strategies to help you shift out of automatic pilot:

  1. Focus on any of your senses and the information that’s available to that sense. For example, stop and look around- notice the colours, shades, movement and structures around you. Or, close your eyes and focus intently on what you can hear- don’t ‘think’ about it, just try and hear it without commentary.

  2. Get out of your head and into your body. Our bodily sensations are only ever in the present moment, whereas our minds are very prone to time travelling- backwards and forwards. Do a quick body scan to see what’s happening in your body. Notice any areas of tension or discomfort. Notice how your body feels in relation to other things such as your clothes, the ground or the seat.

  3. Focus on your breathing for a short while. If you’re feeling any strong, unpleasant emotions, before responding, try making your out-breath long and slow so that it’s longer than your in-breath. Or you could try breathing in for a count of 4, holding for a count of 7 and out for a count of 8.

  4. Focus your attention on a familiar, everyday object and examine it as though you’ve never seen or experienced it before. Let go of any ideas or preconceptions about it, and see if anything new arises.

  5. In relation to the situation you find yourself in, ask yourself if there is any other way of looking at it. How might someone else see it? How might you see it on a different day, or at a different point in your life?

  6. Ask yourself, how you’d respond and engage in this moment or situation, if this were your last day on earth.

  7. If you’re prone to a particular mind-set or thinking pattern that’s unhelpful, develop a word or phrase that you can use every time you notice yourself slipping into this trait. One of my tendencies is to pack so much in to my day, that I feel I have to do everything in a rush. I use the phrase ‘you have time’ which reminds me, that I have the time I need to do important things, and that there’s no need to do everything at 100 miles an hour.

Over to you: Perhaps for the next week you could start to get curious about times when you’re on ‘autopilot’? For example, do you respond immediately to the ping of an email? When you notice something like this, try and follow the trail back from the behaviour (immediate reading of the email), through to the emotions/feelings, and then on to the underlying thoughts. Perhaps you could start to use one of the strategies above to help you put a mental pause before your response, and then just notice what happens.

As ever I’d love to hear how it unfolds, so do get busy in the comments below! And if you’ve found this helpful, I’d love it if you’d share it on social media!

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