Have you driven home, put your car in park, and realized you have no recollection of the drive? It's a little freaky; you wonder how you could have possibly gotten home safely? Your mind was so full of thoughts and distractions that driving fell completely into autopilot.
The brain has the ability and good reason to go into autopilot. It's not necessarily a bad thing. Repetition creates neural pathways that help us get better at almost anything. It allows us to do more and more complex actions simultaneously. Our autopilot can be a lifesaver when we need to think quickly. The problem with autopilot mode is when you are no longer the driver but a passenger, and the driver is not driving in the direction you want.
Avoidance was my autopilot
As a child, I determined that bottling my emotions was useful. I was quiet and introverted, making it simple to do. As I got older, feelings and emotions became more complex and complicated. This particular coping mechanism started to slide to the maladaptive side.
When you suppress negative or difficult emotions long enough, they find a way out—sometimes showing up as physical pain. When this happened, the habit of suppression was so well-established that I also decided to disregard the physical pain. While I was at it, I ignored illness as well.
In 2009 I had what I determined was "only a cold." I was struggling to breathe and had a cough so deep and painful there was a point I feared I had fractured a rib. After weeks of suffering from this "cold," my husband got uncharacteristically angry with me and demanded I go to the doctor. I think it was the genuine look of worry on his face that startled me out of my stubbornness. I went to the doctor and was diagnosed with Pneumonia.
While recovering, I started asking myself, "why did I do this?".
Noticing the nuances
Emotional regulation is necessary. "Mind over matter" thinking and "push through the pain" slogans have their place. The important thing is to know when they are appropriate and when they're not.
Pilates gave me a practical tool to reconnect my mind and body. After practicing and teaching Pilates for ten years, I can see the connections and subtle nuances between my emotions and thinking. I've gained awareness of how thoughts and feelings express physically. The mind, body, and spirit are intricately connected and cannot be separated, no matter how hard we try. I'm aware now when I start moving toward my autopilot. There are physical signs. My breathing gets shallow; I forget to eat, my stomach knots up, my neck and shoulders get tight and tense.
Awareness allows us to be intentional about our direction. Even if you consider yourself healthy mentally, physically, and spiritually, checking in is a good idea. Having something that acts like a tripwire lets you know you're not fully present. Autopilots need recalibration from time to time; otherwise, it's your coping mechanisms, biases, and bad habits that are driving your life.