Stress Relief Principle #5: Automaticity

by Doc Orman, M.D.


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If you read my previous post, you know my focus this week is on two very important stress relief principles: 

Stress Relief Principle #4:  Triggering

Stress Relief Principle #5:  Automaticity 

I ended my last post with the statement: 

“Triggering is what happens to our bodies.  Automaticity is what happens inside our bodies.  It’s the end result of what triggering starts.” 

Two Sides Of The Same Coin (Mostly) 

It’s rarely possible to speak about either triggering or automaticity without making reference to the other.  Most of the time, they are two sides of the same coin.  Whenever you have triggering, you’re going to produce automaticity.  And wherever you see automaticity, there was probably some triggering event that stimulated it. 

However, there are exceptions to this rule.  Certain things can interact with our bodies and not produce any internal reactions.  For example, when you’re out walking your dog, there are sound waves in your environment that are impinging on both your and your dog’s bodies.  Some of these encounters with sound frequencies will produce no reactions in your body, whereas your dog’s ears may suddenly perk up. 

Also, there are certain processes that go on inside our body that are automatic in nature, such as our breathing and the beating of our heart, but which occur without requiring an external stimulus to make them happen.  Yet at the same time, certain external (and internal) triggers can directly increase or decrease both our heart rate and our breathing patterns. 

What Does Automaticity Have To Do With Stress? 

Short answer—EVERYTHING!!!   But, I guess it doesn’t help very much if I just leave it at that. 

Automaticity is a concept that refers to certain automatic responses that get activated within our bodies (usually in response to some triggering event). 

Here are a few examples: 

  • You go to a movie and the smell of popcorn makes you want to eat some.
  • While in the movie, you see someone get eaten by a shark, and your stomach heaves just a bit (I’ll never forget my own internal body reaction to the opening scene of the original Shark movie years ago).
  • You hear a passionate political speech by someone whose ideas you strongly disagree with, and you immediately feel angry.
  • You get the news that somebody close to you suddenly and tragically died.
  • You walk into work one day and your boss tells you that you’ve been fired. 

These are all very common examples of both triggering and automaticity.  Whatever reactions get triggered within your body, in response to each of these specific situations, would be what is automatic for you—what’s automatic for your body. 

Interestingly, the exact same triggering event can produce different reactions inside different people’s bodies.  Each individual body reaction would be automatic for that individual, but based on prior experiences and past conditioning, the body reactions of others could be either similar or vastly different. 

Automaticity Can Be Helpful Or Problematic 

All automatic body reactions do not result in human stress.  Many are beneficial to us, such as automatically looking both ways before crossing a street. Or automatically pulling your hand away from a fire.  Or automatically saying “you’re welcome” when somebody thanks you for something. 

But there are also times when the automatic reactions within our bodies are primary sources of our stress.  For example, when you automatically criticize someone close to you for committing a minor mistake.  Or when you automatically look to blame someone (other than yourself) whenever something you were responsible for didn’t turn out well. 

Triggering and Automaticity are at the heart of most human stress.  That’s why I chose to focus on both of these key principles this week. 

In my third and final post for the week, I’ll tell you about a very simple strategy that can help increase your awareness of just how common these two human tendencies really are. 

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