Sam and Edna are arguing. They are yelling over one another, each jumping in before the other can finish a thought or a sentence. Their back and forth is getting louder and louder, faster and faster and nastier and nastier. They’ve done this a thousand times before. If asked about it later, each of them would say they hate arguing, and they know it never solves anything. They don’t really know why they do it.

Stu is driving home from a long, frustrating day at work. Some guy just cut him off on the freeway so Stu accelerates his car, moving right up onto the guy’s bumper. He gets as close as he dares, closer really, knowing that if he needs to hit the brakes he’ll probably rear end the guy, and he’ll be at fault. On some level Stu knows this is childish and dangerous behavior, but he wants his revenge and can’t seem to stop himself.

Lani hasn’t called her mother in 3 weeks. She’s been avoiding it ever since her mother gave her a guilt trip for not calling often enough the last time they spoke. She knows she should quit putting it off, that it will only make things worse, but she thinks, “Why doesn’t my mother ever call me? Why do I have to be the one? After all, the phone works both ways!” On the heels of all that, Lani thinks, “God I’m so lame”. Then she goes into the kitchen and finishes all the cookies she’d baked for the kids that morning.

What do Sam, Edna, Stu, and Lori have in common? They’ve all gotten HOOKED. Hooked is a good word for what happens as a result of emotional reactivity. Emotional reactivity is the process of having one’s fight or flight (or freeze) instinct activated. The fight or flight response is a survival mechanism shared by all animals and is triggered when there’s a real or perceived threat. When the response is triggered, the self goes into survival mode, ready for action; ready to fight back or run away. This reaction is sensitive in all of us, but more sensitive in some people than in others. The process goes something like this: Something happens, or some thought or feeling occurs, and there’s a physical reaction. This is the initiation of the chemical chain that prepares the body for fight or flight. This chemical reaction then triggers more thoughts and feelings that generate more of the chemicals that generate more of the thoughts and feelings, etc. etc. Thoughts and feelings arising from emotional reactivity are often characterized by their repetitive nature, by blaming self or others, by focusing on what others are doing, or by becoming overwhelmed with self-conscious feelings of shame or guilt. Once HOOKED, people become defensive, irrational, hopeless, impulsive and compulsive. Individuals have their own selection of HOOKED behaviors to choose from. For some it’s arguing, for some it’s avoiding, for some it’s abusing substances, food, or spending. Some people get physical symptoms or ailments when they’re HOOKED often enough or long enough. Most people have many HOOKED behaviors that they are drawn to in times of stress.

What’s the answer? Start by heightening awareness of when you get HOOKED. Notice where you feel it first-in your gut, sweaty palms, a sensation in your head, or wherever it is for you. Then observe where your thoughts/feelings go. Do you tend to get defensive, blaming, guilty, or tearful?  Do you immediately start to think about that drink you can’t wait to have after work? Maybe you change your dinner plans from a healthy salad to a cheese burger and fries.  All of us get HOOKED many times throughout the day.  Sometimes they are small hooks, like a reaction to a woman who doesn’t say “thank you” when you hold the door for her.  In that case you might have a HOOKED reaction, but it comes and goes quickly.  Sometimes the hooks are much bigger and more intense, often when they involve long-standing relationship issues.  Learn to recognize when you are HOOKED.  Once you see it happen, make the effort to focus on the sensation in your body instead of following the HOOKED thoughts.  Remember these important facts about being HOOKED:

  1. Even if it’s a common, big HOOK for you, it always passes.  Thoughts and feelings always do.
  2. The negative effects of your HOOK are probably much more detrimental to your physical and emotional wellbeing than whatever it is that you got HOOKED by. For example, Lani’s stress, worry, guilt, and overeating over not calling her mom are much more of a drain on her than any guilt trip her mother can throw.
  3. Every time you attach to your HOOK and follow it with HOOKED thoughts and feelings, you are strengthening the HOOK.  That’s what addiction is all about.  Think about it like exercise-the more you exercise your muscles by working out the bigger and stronger they get.  The more you exercise your HOOKS by focusing on them the bigger and stronger they get.
One more thought; sometimes a HOOK can look like a positive thing.  Some people go jogging when they are stressed or want to avoid an issue or problem.  The urge to run is a HOOK behavior for them.  Obviously unless you really overdo it, jogging is a good thing.  But it’s not a good replacement for facing your fears or relationships.  So catch when you get HOOKED, focus on what that feels like, and think about what you can do besides following the HOOKED train of habitual thoughts and behaviors.  You won’t stop getting HOOKED overnight, or ever, because we really are anxious animals.  What you will do, however, is begin the process of behaving more thoughtfully and less automatically.  That’s what emotional maturity is all about.

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