Loosening the Grip of Compulsive Behavior — Creating a Space Between Stimulus and Response

Our behavior is driven by unconscious urges. We roll through our days like robots, our actions largely determined by stimulus-response chains.

For example, I see a photo of a large café mocha made with whole milk and dark chocolate, topped with mounds of whipped cream (stimulus).

I feel a desire that starts in my gut and practically makes me drool (response).

The urge to immediately act on that desire — before I even know what’s going on inside me — is strong. If I do give in, the cost is five dollars, 500 calories, and God knows how much saturated fat.

Despite those costs, I give in to the urge and go for the drink.

Or, I’m walking through an intersection and almost get hit by a driver who’s speeding and runs a red light (stimulus).

I retreat to the curb and feel an urge to immediately scream at the driver (response).

Acting on that urge won’t change the driver’s behavior, of course. But it will raise my blood pressure, strain my voice, and infect me with an emotional negativity that lingers for hours.

So much of my life unfolds in this manner. I see the automatic chain of events from stimulus to response. Yet I often fail to act on what I see. I coast through life on a sub-human level, moving through a waking sleep.

No wonder that Gurdjieff described us as “machines among machines.”

Waking up with metacognition

There is another option: To become aware. To live like a conscious human being. To wake up.

The key is putting a space between stimulus and response.

There’s a useful expression of this idea in an interview conducted by Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath at a Time: Buddhism and the Twelve Steps.

Griffin spoke with the late Alan Marlatt, director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington.

Marlatt developed Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention (MBRP). This method helps recovering alcoholics and addicts avoid acting on urges to drink alcohol or use other drugs.

The essence of MBRP is metacognition. Marlatt described this as “the ability to stand back, observe what is happening and think about what you are doing rather than being on automatic pilot.”

Creating SOBER space

Marlatt goes on to explain a handy technique for metacognition. He summarizes the steps in this technique with an acronym — SOBER.

Suppose that a recovering alcoholic walks by a bar he used to visit. A thought arises: I could just step inside and see if anyone I know is there.

That thought is a stimulus, triggering a craving for alcohol. And a likely response is falling off the wagon.

The SOBER alternative is to:

  • Stop walking.
  • Observe thoughts and feelings.
  • Breathe with mindful awareness.
  • Expand awareness and visualize the likely result of entering the bar.
  • Respond in a way that sustains recovery—such as walking quickly away from the bar.

This is a simple and practical way to deal with cravings of any type. The essence is to stop, breathe, and cultivate a moment of self-awareness.

That’s all it takes to introduce a sacred space between stimulus and response.

Like the old saying goes: What you are aware of, you can control. What you are not aware of, controls you.