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Willpower Not Working? It May be Brain Chemistry...

Updated: Jan 18

Are you wanting to make change in your life but just can't seem to make it happen???

Perhaps you've been trying to change problematic behaviours, or relationship patterns, but no matter how many podcasts you listen to or self-help books you read, you just cant' seem to shift the behaviours...?

This is a common dilemma many people face, but the good news is it's probably not because you're flawed in some way, or just not trying hard enough... it's actually because our brain chemistry can make some behaviours really hard to change!

Let's take *Mae for example....

Mae came to see me feeling frustrated that she kept facing the same challenges in all her relationships. She would meet someone & get attached to them very quickly & intensely.

Things would be amazing for awhile, but then, at some point, this person would do something to upset her. It could be an off-handed comment, or an argument about a small issue.... but to Mae it caused a dramatic shift in her feelings in the relationship.

She would go from being intensely loved-up with this person, to suddenly viewing them as completely horrible. Like night to day, her feelings would change. She would push them away with all her force & burn any bridges for future reconciliation. She would say & do awful things to them & others in her anger & hurt. Then she would feel shame & regret.

Mae could not understand why she kept doing this! She could see she was being unreasonable, & that to make a relationship work in the long-term she would need to be less extreme in her expectations of others.

However, no amount of telling herself this changed it. Mae described these episodes as feeling like she had lost control of herself. She felt like a horrible person & had started to think perhaps she doesn't deserve a loving relationship at all.

Mae had been to traditional talk therapy several times, & she tried using various techniques to change- but nothing had worked. She had become more & more hopeless.

In my work with Mae we started by exploring the dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT) concept of the Distress Tolerance Curve.

The Distress Tolerance Curve shows us how we experience intense distress, & the behaviours we often resort to that reduce our distress in the short-term, but make things worse in the long-term.

This was the case for Mae's behaviours. Pushing away loved ones helped her feel safer in the short-term, when she perceived some loss of safety or loyalty in the relationship. But she ended up making things worse by destroying her relationships (many of which could have been easily repaired), & then feeling shame about her behaviour.

Over time, these behaviours had actually escalated for Mae. She noticed she was doing this more & more often, & sooner in new relationships. This is common if we continue with problem behaviours- things unfortunately get worse over time.

Mae needed to understand the reason she hadn't been able to change these behaviours was because of what was happening with her brain chemistry. It wasn't her fault! When she is highly distress, there is a process in her brain which makes it literally impossible to think rationally.

Mae could be the most rational, wise person when calm... but when distress hits, that part of her brain goes offline & her fight/ flight/ flee response kicks in!

To change this Mae needed new skills to help her change her body chemistry FAST at times of crisis. Once Mae gets her rational brain back online, THEN she can use other psychological skills to manage the situation.

In DBT we call skills that change body chemistry TIP skills. These are the skills we need to use FIRST before we stand any chance of changing behaviour patterns.

Want to learn more about the Distress Tolerance Curve, TIP skills & more ways to regulate emotions? You're in luck! Check out our online program, DBT 101!


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