Autopilot: Energy Saver and Saboteur
Ethyl alcohol is the intoxicating substance found in beer, wine, and liquor. It is addictive and dangerous, but the truth is, not everyone who drinks alcoholic beverages ends up hitting devastating rock bottom. Some folks who drink alcohol regularly, as a part of their social or working lifestyle may never encounter any serious issues. Many of them could, if they chose, stop drinking today without any risk of dangerous withdrawal symptoms. Still, some of these people struggle to stop drinking even after they’ve decided that they’d be better off without it. Why?
Autopilot, a term used in mindfulness-based treatment modalities, is one culprit. It can sabotage some of the very best intentions.
Simply put, autopilot describes the state that we’re in when we do something without thinking about or focusing on what we’re doing.
That doesn’t sound too terrible, does it?
Autopilot is not terrible. It has a purpose. The state of autopilot is great for saving energy. You see, autopilot relies on procedural memory – that’s where our old, practiced behaviors live. Tying shoes, brushing teeth, eating with a spoon or a fork, and even driving to work using a particular route are part of procedural memory. Because these things have been practiced over and over again, they take very little of our brain’s precious energy. Our brains don’t have to work too hard to get these things done, so it leaves time and space for other things. For example, we can multitask!
Despite its positive traits, autopilot is not always our friend when we’re trying to make big changes. It can turn into quite the saboteur if we don’t keep an eye on it. To understand how this works, we need to wrap our heads around a few things:
It takes a lot of energy to build a new habit. Depending on how long we’ve been practicing the old habit and how much stuff is connected to it, we have to fight against our brains to do new things and to do them long enough that the brain gets used to them. If you don’t believe that, try this simple little act: For one full week start brushing your teeth on the right side of your mouth rather than the left (or vice versa). Notice how your hand will try to shift to the side that it’s used to, and notice how that’s especially true if you’re in a hurry.
Autopilot conserves energy. That’s not a bad thing. The trouble is that when we are depleted (exhausted, hungry, depressed) or when we’re elevated (excited, angry, jazzed up) we can fall automatically into an autopilot state. Remember, new behaviors take up lots of energy. Old habits don’t. Our smart, helpful brain knows when we need to conserve our energy, and if we’re not on our toes, it will slide us right into autopilot without asking for consent. For those of us that run around in a perpetual state of stress, autopilot is a balm for our overtaxed brain.
A lot of stuff goes into building and growing some of our habits, and the more stuff, the stickier the habit is to break. Alcohol consumption can be a very sticky habit. Take one aspect of drinking alcohol (just 1!) – Happy Hour. For some folks, Happy Hour is a weekly habit that they’ve been engaging in for many years. The Happy Hour habit is made up of both internal and external cues. It is more than walking out of the office and going down to the corner bar. The Happy Hour habit includes emotions and feelings like the excitement that the week is over, exhaustion after having put in a long day or week, and happiness about spending time with friends.
These internal cues combine with external cues like other employees talking about Happy Hour, the clock hitting 5 pm, the office emptying, and picking up our jackets and lunchboxes before heading out the door. When we’re in an autopilot state, all of these cues can be amplified. It’s a bit like the cues are there poking buttons, and before we know it we slide out the office door and down to the pub instead of home to our dinner and a warm bed.
This is not about weak willpower and has nothing to do with morals either. Old habits are hard to break. Autopilot has its benefits, but when it comes to choosing sobriety after years of practice drinking, getting some control over autopilot is critical. Fortunately for us, while doing so takes practice, it isn’t complicated. Here are two important things to cultivate that will help keep autopilot in check and out of the saboteur role:
Since our smart, helpful brains will happily slide into autopilot to conserve energy, one of the best things we can do is learn to understand and regulate our energy appropriately. There’s a reason that the acronym, HALT is popular in 12-step circles. Hunger, anger, loneliness, and exhaustion deplete our energy and set us up to operate on autopilot. The problem is, that many of us have spent years ignoring our feelings and the sensations in our bodies. The first step is to practice taking time throughout the day to check in with the body, heart, and mind.
This doesn’t have to be a complicated deal. Just closing the eyes for a moment and noticing any physical sensations is a good way to start. That little practice teaches us to recognize what our energy looks like at any given time. By learning and practicing good nutrition, sleep hygiene, healthy social skills, stress management, and emotional processing we can keep our energy nice and level more often.
The opposite of autopilot is focused awareness. While autopilot conserves energy, focused awareness feeds it. The trouble is that many of us have trained ourselves away from this kind of awareness to move more quickly and do more things at once. To cultivate focused awareness, we must slow down, and that’s something that is not necessarily encouraged in our society. The good news is that we can practice focused awareness while we’re practicing tuning into our bodies.
The more we practice, the easier it all becomes. Good level energy feeds our ability to have focused awareness and focused awareness helps to feed and regulate our energy. Together, they keep autopilot in check. The saboteur is no longer so quick to sabotage our efforts to change.
To sum up – not everyone who decides to stop drinking is chemically dependent, but that doesn’t mean that stopping is easy*. Autopilot can sabotage the best intentions for sobriety. By learning to understand and regulate our energy and by practicing focused awareness, we can start to control the autopilot. With the saboteur under control building a new habit, even one as big as sobriety, becomes easier.
LUNA Recovery Services Can Help You Break the Vicious Cycle
If you have tried to stop drinking or using other chemicals and have been unable to do so or have encountered significant problems, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. Autopilot is only one piece of what may be a more complicated puzzle, and there is no need to struggle on your own. Please reach out to us today by calling (713) 714-1761 or by using the chat box at the bottom of any page on our website, lunarecovery.com.
Dr. Allaire received his Bachelors of Science in Biology from the University of Houston, as Valedictorian of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, and his Medical Doctorate from Baylor College of Medicine, where he served as Chief Resident. He is the medical monitor for the Physician Counseling Committee of the Harris County Medical Society and the Medical Director of Serenity House Detox. Dr. Allaire specializes in medically assisted detox cases, treating patients in recovery from addiction or other mental health disorders, the medical assessment and monitoring of patients with addictive disorders, medical care related to eating disorders and the medical treatment of patients with mental health conditions.