What Shapes Our Behaviors?
Many survivors of child sexual abuse experience confusion, frustration, or even shame towards some of their own behaviors. They may not feel in control of specific behaviors, or they may feel they cannot change a certain behavior even when they would like to do so. In some cases, a survivor may be unaware that a behavior they engage with is unhealthy and likely contributing to other struggles they experience.
Whatever the case, it can be helpful to remember that all behavior has a purpose. We all have factors that influence how we act, even if we aren’t always aware of those factors. Some of the elements that help shape our behaviors include:
- Our personality.
- How we adapt to our environment.
- What we were taught by our caregivers.
- What we have observed.
- What we’ve learned based on firsthand experience.
- What we are feeling.
What Makes a Behavior Unhealthy?
A behavior can become unhealthy when it begins to have negative consequences on our physical or mental health.1 Sometimes we may not understand why we engage in these behaviors and may even wish we never engaged in those behaviors at all (as they can lead to additional problems in the long term).
In instances when we don’t understand why we are using a certain behavior, it is often because that behavior is being driven by our brain’s limbic system. The limbic system is the instinctual, automatic part of the brain that responds first to incoming simuli.5 When the limbic system senses danger, it activates an emotional or physical need to feel safe.
This response is important, especially in situations where potential risks and dangers are present, such as prompting us to hurry when we enter a dark alleyway by inciting a jolt of adrenaline. On the other hand, these responses can become problematic when the limbic system is always on high alert even in situations where there isn’t any threat. This type of hypervigilance is common among people who have endured a trauma, such as child sexual abuse.
How Unhealthy Behaviors Are Connected to Child Sexual Abuse
Oftentimes, a survivor’s limbic system will respond to what it perceives as a threat when no threat is actually present. These perceived threats that the brain associates with a past trauma are what are called triggers. And when the limbic system is triggered, it defaults to a behavior that has helped keep us safe or provided relief in the past.
While some of these behaviors have been helpful before or may work in moderation, in the long run the behavior may become dysfunctional and cause even more distress in the survivor’s life. For instance, it may have helped you to dissociate as a child or teen to cope with the unbearable reality of being sexually abused. But as an adult, dissociating during a meeting with your manager or while giving a speech at a fundraiser will likely create more anxiety and challenges.
This is especially the case if a survivor continues to default to an unhelpful behavior every time the limbic system is triggered, leading to an overreliance on coping behaviors that provide temporary relief but create further distress down the line. For example, choosing to sleep in the middle of the day because you’re feeling sick and need additional rest is helpful. However, choosing to sleep for hours each day as a way to cope with an emotional response—like stress, boredom, or loneliness—becomes unhelpful and can lead to additional problems, like failing to meet deadlines, missing important events, or neglecting relationships.
What Are Unhealthy Coping Behaviors?
Unhealthy Behaviors vs Addictions
There is a common misconception that emotionally driven behaviors are addictions. Many may label their go-to behavior as a “food addiction,” “shopping addiction,” or “sex addiction.” However, we want to differentiate between behavior that is motivated by the emotional responses of the limbic system and behavior that is driven by a physiological addiction to alcohol or drugs. If you feel you may have developed an addiction to one or more of these examples, we encourage you to visit our Addictions page.
Is My Unhealthy Behavior Normal?
Using unhealthy behaviors to cope with a triggered limbic system is common, even natural. Unhealthy behaviors such as excessive sleeping, eating, or watching TV are easy to default to because they are our “feel safe” memories. This means we have used these behaviors in the past to cope with our emotions. The more we default to these behaviors, the more we associate them with comfort. This comfort and familiarity we may feel with a certain behavior is due to the well-worn neural pathways we have created in our brain by repeating that behavior over and over again. These pathways become even harder to change when we lack the social support of others who can provide us with encouragement, assistance, and validation.3
Below is a chart depicting how these neural pathways are linked to the triggers we encounter and our responses to those triggers.
How to Create New Intentional Behaviors
You may have relied on behaviors that feel comfortable and familiar to you but aren’t helpful in the long run. Maybe you have depended on them for many years and they have become instinctual reactions you use all the time. But it is possible to change these behaviors into coping skills that provide you relief without the extra baggage of unhealthy routines. These coping skills are driven by behavior that is intentional rather than behavior that is reactive. For example, rather than coping with a stressful family event by spending your entire paycheck on a shopping spree, you can manage that stress through a more intentional behavior like going on a hike, cleaning the house, listening to calming music, or reaching out to someone for support.
The more you practice these intentional behaviors, the easier it will be to choose them over unhelpful behaviors as you build new neural pathways and establish new habits. It may feel uncomfortable at first, setting these new intentional behaviors when the old behaviors still seem so much more well-worn and instinctual. But with time and consistency, you can intentionally make your new coping strategies the go-to behaviors in your life. On occasion you will likely revert back to your more familiar behaviors as you are learning new behaviors, and that’s okay. Just remember to be patient with yourself and to keep working at it.