Are you living life on Autopilot?
Autopilot is the ability to do something automatically with little to no cognitive effort. Essentially our brains have developed a subconscious system to take care of routine tasks, decisions, and thoughts; however, like many protective systems, it can become maladaptive and harm our overall wellbeing.
Some other note-worthy terms to consider are:
Emotional Autopilot refers specifically to the patterns of responding based on absolutes such as “I never go out on Fridays”. Another way emotional autopilot appears is in the automatic patterned response of your emotions without assessing your current state of being. For example, have you ever had someone ask you "how are you?" and you, without thinking, respond "fine" or "good," maybe even "tired"? Those are emotional autopilots that are built based on rules we have either learned from the external world or rules we have established based on internal narratives. Emotional autopilot limits our ability and presence with our true emotions; it isolates us from the world. When we take a moment to realize we are on emotional autopilot, we are more likely to break the pattern and bring more of our intentions and values into what we are doing and who we are while we do it.
Automaticity is a newer term in the field of psychology. It refers to the ability to act without thinking and is said to occur due to the overlearning of a behavior. If you practice and practice, much like muscle memory, you become so skilled at the task that you can execute it with little thought.
How do you know if you are emotionally coasting on autopilot mode?
Here are some signs:
- Doing things without thinking
- Over committing
- Forgetting parts of your day
- Wasting time
- The feeling of existing rather than living
- You dread your day ahead
- Difficulty remembering
- Can’t put your phone down (automatically checking it)
- Constantly in deep thought
- Inability to let things go
- Not making a meaningful process
- You say “yes” more than “no” without considering what you want.
Some describe feeling like they are watching a movie of their life rather than living it, feeling cloudy, stay of absent, indifferent, detached, disconnected, and going through the motions without purpose.
How can this affect different aspects of their lives?
Automaticity can be a risk in every area of your life, from making costly errors at work to the more day-to-day dangers, like forgetting to look before you cross the street.
The problem is that autopilot will always choose the familiar, comfortable, and safe path. It limits a person from reaching their full potential or growing from the adversity that they live through. Our brains try to preserve as much energy as possible to allow us to do multiple things at once; however, the fast, automatic, and unconscious ways of autopilot are deceiving as it is prone to bias and repetitive errors.
Due to the high caseloads and repetitive processes that health care workers perform, they are likelier to make mistakes on autopilot.
Overall mental health and personal relationships are the areas that suffer most from living on autopilot. Overall satisfaction has diminished the longer we coast on autopilot.
What are the negative consequences of autopilot?
This is a subjective answer as it ranges from fatal mistakes, loss of meaningful connections, and/or decreased mental health. But for me, I think the worst that could happen would be to realize that you let the beautiful chaos of living pass you by.
Thankfully a great deal of autopilot is learned and thus can be rewired with practice.
Here are some helpful ways to take back control and be present:
- Increase awareness and challenge your current narratives, behaviors, and systems
- Are you living on autopilot because you want to or because it just happens?
- Do you use emotional autopilot to avoid difficult or uncomfortable feelings?
- Are you making decisions for yourself, or is your subconscious?
- Know your values
- Define your purpose
- Set your goals
- Connect routines and habits to your bigger picture and decide when it’s okay to go on autopilot and when it’s important to stay present
- Slow down and check in with yourself
- What do you like?
- How do you feel?
- Has your purpose changed?
- Bring new experiences to your life that are outside of your comfort zone
- Double-check your intentions
- Practice Mindfulness
What triggers autopilot mode?
Autopilot can be activated for various reasons such as stress, trauma, depression, anxiety or dissociative disorders, burnout, ignoring stress, change, being overwhelmed, and many more.
Don’t Panic. This is more common than you think.
Especially in the current world, we live in and the repetitive routines brought on by the pandemic. Research shows that people operate on autopilot roughly 47% of the day, many without even knowing they are on autopilot.
How do you become more present at the moment?
The most important shift is noticing you are on autopilot. Why is it most important? Well, most of the time, we do not realize that we are on autopilot until there is an extreme emotion or something that jolts us back. So, an honest assessment of yourself can go a long way in jolting you back to the present. From there, it's up to you to train your brain to avoid living in that state.
Mindfulness practices are the best way to live in the now. Mindfulness affects your brain's amygdala, which is responsible for regulating your body, so actively working to be in the present will balance your stress response.
However, many resist mindfulness because it is out of their comfort zone and unfamiliar (which is exactly what autopilot hates, the unfamiliar!) I tell all my clients to let go of what they think mindfulness is and create a practice that is slow, conscious, requires some effort, but most importantly, is something that they will enjoy doing. Mindfulness is not one thing but rather the ability to bring yourself to the present and enjoy what is around you, so allow yourself to create a practice you love.
Recognizing Autopilot in Yourself
It's a personal experience based on many factors, such as lived experiences, trauma, and emotional capacity. However, ideally, there would be a balance based on when it best serves the individual. Understanding that both autopilot and presence are valuable tools for you to use gives you the power to live in abundance.