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We All Have Our Stuff

Interrupting the "Stress Response"

By Dr. Suzanne LaCombe, June 17, 2007.
Reviewed by:
Andrew Larcombe R.P.N., M.A.
Updated: February 25, 2007.

If you dropped in from elsewhere you'll spoil the exercise if you continue reading here. Go back one step and begin reading here: Procedural Memory.

Once you unconsciously trigger a procedure, which could be any routine task, it's difficult to stop yourself from completing it. That is, it's difficult to interrupt the procedure. That's what reading the ad is attempting to show you.

Want to know why you repeat the same pattern in relationships even though these strategies clearly don't work? You're not alone. Benjamin Franklin once observed that "the definition of "insanity" is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results".

Once you understand how procedural memory works you'll have a better handle on why you repeat ineffective, even self-defeating, behaviours. Not only that, you'll learn what you need to do in your counseling--and your life--in order to make personal changes that last.

Let's go back to the 'Don't Bother Reading!' ad...

First I tweak your interest by telling you not to read the ad (a paradoxical intervention). Then you began to read the ad, almost in spite of yourself.

You soon discover that I was talking about the Terms of Service, which most people feel is a big yawn.

At this point you were probably tempted to quit--but you continued reading anyway. Maybe you're were a little upset with me thinking that I was tricking you into reading the Terms of Service. Maybe you thought you've already invested some time so you might as well continue. Perhaps you justified continuing by thinking 'there must be something more to this'.

Your neo-cortex can always provide a reason that "explains" why you continued. But the real motivator was the feeling of 'wanting to continue'; not the interpretation or rationalization of your actions. You felt almost compelled to act out the procedure by reading to the end of the ad.

Once a procedure is initiated it acquires a forward momentum that is uncomfortable to stop. This is the source of the desire to continue the procedure.

Here's another example.

Imagine a city crosswalk where you push a button to get a green light. Did you ever start to push the button and suddenly realize that the person standing there has probably already pushed it? Your arm is in motion, your finger is ready. Chances are you continued to push the button anyway1. You stayed in procedure because interrupting is disruptive and uncomfortable.

Procedural memory dances with our cortex which can always come up with a "rational" explanation or justification for our automatic behaviours. Maybe you figured the person was standing there for a reason. (But you were smarter than that--he was really hanging out there so people would think the buttton was already pushed!)

A New Way of Looking At...


Everyone deals with stress a little differently. The differences are due to the unique response patterns in the nervous system that were learned and adopted, albeit unconsciously, in the first few years of life. A history of trauma can also shape these patterns.

However, you can change your stress response patterns (i.e. your procedural memory) in the same way that you can learn to swing a golf club.

That's right! You can change the way you habitually respond to stress.

Your "procedure" for dealing with stress will depend on where you start (i.e. how healthy or regulated your nervous system is).

It's hard to interrupt a procedure, or behaviour, at a point when it's most unlikely that you would do so. But to do so, is also the best and fastest way of changing an old pattern!

Imagine that you're stressed, rushing to get a project done before deadline, but that right in the middle you stop and take a break in a quiet, shaded courtyard. You feel a hurried sense of presssure to return to work but instead you focus your attention on taking in the serenity, the beauty of that present moment.

And as you do so, the energy in your nervous system begins to discharge. You calm down a little.

In this small way you have just created a new pathway for energy to dissipate, to discharge. Your habitual nervous system pattern ('keep charging ahead') has been altered, if only slightly. But if you interrupt it enough times you'll find it gets easier because there will be more pathways for the energy to discharge, and it will do so in a more efficient way.

I've got one more experiential exercise. It'll give you an idea of what you need to overcome in your counseling in order to achieve the results you want. Enjoy.

Counseling and Resistance.



1 Dr. Edward Joseph was the first to explain the concept of procedural memory to me. The 'pushing the button procedure' was his example.

Reference and further reading:

Grigsby, Jim & Stevens, David (2000). Neurodynamics of Personality. New York: Guilford Press.

Are you taking the Science of Counseling Tour ?

I recommend that you read the the next page of Procedural Memory. It explains what you need to overcome in counseling in order to change your response to stress. This list will be repeated in the next page.

What's with the Reptile?

The Right Brain
Implicit Memory

Procedural Memory



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