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A Picture Perfect Pattern Interrupt

February 23, 2011

Pattern Interrupt

The other night my husband and I ventured out in the arctic air for some much needed social interaction.  We attended a community event hosted by two of our friends.  Early in the evening, the hostess ushered a newcomer over to our table and introduced him to my husband and I.  When he took a seat across from us at the table, I smiled, he smiled back, and my husband kind of smiled.  Within minutes, an awkward silence surrounded the three of us.   I am more social and outgoing than my husband but I was otherwise occupied prepping a group activity for later in the evening.  My husband, who struggles with social anxiety resulting from years of living with undiagnosed AD/HD, shifted in his seat trying to work up to those first words.  I could feel him start to tense beside me, his anxiety rising at the thought of having to converse with someone he doesn’t know.

Luckily, the newcomer, who was sitting directly across from me, took the initiative and asked us a question.  My husband answered but the room was very loud and it was immediately apparent that conversation was going to be difficult.  To make it easier for them to chat, I got up and offered to switch chairs with my husband.  My intention was merely to get them closer together so they could hear each other.  They immediately started talking and I could feel the tension swirling around the table dissipate.

On the way home, my husband expressed his appreciation for my timing, letting me know that by suggesting we switch chairs exactly when I did, he was distracted enough that he stopped worrying about talking to the newcomer and just started talking to him.

“It was a pattern interrupt!”  I exclaimed. “That is a picture perfect example of a pattern interrupt.”

In response, I got a combination blank stare/look of bemusement.  That is generally the look I get when I use some phrase or term that might be common among AD/HD coaches and professionals but that doesn’t make complete contextual sense to regular every day people.

I didn’t hesitate.  I jumped at the opportunity to help him understand and launched into an explanation of pattern interruption and its usefulness with ADDers.   It went something like this.

A pattern interrupt is kind of what it sounds like, something that interrupts a pattern.  In this instance, the pattern is an old way of thinking.  The human brain is incredibly fond of patterns.  Repetitive thoughts actually create their own neural pathways across our brains and the more that pathway is used, the bigger it gets.  This is one of the reasons it is so hard to change a bad habit or build a new one.  Your brain is always going to use the path of least resistance, the biggest, most frequently used pathway.

In many ways, these patterns are very beneficial.  Our brain is roaring along all day picking and choosing the most efficient and effective path for each situation.  This makes our lives easier because we are not constantly trying to figure out how to do things we have done a hundred times before.  However, these patterns do not serve us well when they represent something that is unhealthy for us or trigger thoughts that no longer support and sustain us.

This can be even more challenging for AD/HD brains.  Because ADDers spend alot of time living in their heads, they can’t always discern if messages they are processing are internal or external.  When you lack a reliable understanding of the source of an input, you also lack the ability to immediately classify it as something you can or cannot change.  This identification is important in order to stop an ingrained thought pattern and consciously change its direction.  This is where a pattern interrupt can be an effective tool for change.

In this circumstance, the arrival of the newcomer at the table triggered my husband’s social anxiety, kicking off an internal dialogue that is entirely focused on how hard it is for him to interact with others.  He gets anxious thinking about what he is going to say and worrying that he will say the wrong thing.  The more he thinks about it, the more anxious he becomes and the harder it is for him to bridge the gap between wanting to interact and actually saying the first word.  His thoughts race through these ingrained pathways faster and faster keeping him locked in the pattern of uncertainty, fear of failure and inaction. The simple act of asking him to switch seats and the physical movement required to switch were enough to interrupt that pattern.  When he sat down, he just started talking.

That is a perfect picture of a pattern interrupt.

For more information on this and other AD/HD topics or to sign-up for a coaching consultation, visit my site.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Barb permalink
    April 19, 2011 1:29 pm

    I’m someone who often is baffled by the jargon. Using a real life example to explore this topic was a great help.

    • April 21, 2011 6:10 am

      Thanks! I use this approach alot in my coaching. I am just lucky to have so many opportunities to choose from!

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