“According to recent brain studies, we are literally stuck in a rut:

As a result, we choose our most instinctual coping behavior when certain feelings arise. We often choose this path because it is also the direction that confronts us with the least anxiety.”(The Anxious Christian, pp. 61 — the source in the book is Brent J. Atkinson, ‘Supplementing Couples Therapy with Methods for Reconditioning Emotional Habits,’ Family Therapy Magazine, May/June 2011, pp. 29)

It’s true, and I see it everyday in my therapy office with the people I work with. And I see it everyday in my own life.

Everyday I make tons of instinctual choices without a second thought to why I’m making them. It’s an instant response that has been hardwired into my brain from many years ago. When I feel alone I tend to withdraw and shutdown. When I feel unloved I tend to pout (I know…feel sorry for my wife please), which is a horrible quality for someone to have to put up with. When I feel like I’m not good enough, I perform and work hard. I do these things today at the age of 38, but you know where they had their roots? Somewhere in my early formative years, mostly before I turned 12 years old.

And you too have patterns of behavior that connect certain feelings you experience and the coping behaviors you choose. You just might not be aware of the fact that these patterns are more than likely ones that you developed a long time ago, and that you have continued to hone and master for the last 10, 20, 30, 40 years, and beyond.

In the same article cited above Atkinson writes the following:

“Brain studies suggest that across their lifetimes, people develop internal mechanisms for coping with things that are upsetting to them. The brain organizes these coping mechanisms into coherent, self-protective neural response programs that are highly automated (Panksepp, 1998). Once a neural response program forms, each time it is triggered, a predictable pattern of thoughts, urges and actions unfold. Neural response programs can dramatically bias people’s perceptions and interpretations without them realizing it, and generate powerful inclinations to attack, defend, or retreat.” (The Anxious Christian, pp. 200 — the source in the book is Brent J. Atkinson, ‘Supplementing Couples Therapy with Methods for Reconditioning Emotional Habits,’ Family Therapy Magazine, May/June 2011, pp. 29)

We can give these patterns (that connect our feelings to our coping behaviors) different names. At The Hideaway Marriage Experience in Amarillo where I’m on staff to co-lead marriage intensives, Terry Hargrave and Shawn Stoever refer to this pattern as the pain cycle and is outlined in their book, 5 Days to a New Marriage. Dr. Emerson Eggerichs in his book Love and Respect refers to it as the crazy cycle. The Smalley’s refer to it as the fear dance. And Sue Johnson in her emotionally focused therapy work refers to it as a dance. Most researchers and therapists have a name for it. You might even have your own name.

So what does this all mean?

What it means is that you have some pattern that you have developed over the years. This pattern connects your feelings and coping behaviors. And this pattern is what you bring into relationships. Wherever you go, this pattern goes with you. And guess what? Your partner brings this into your relationship as well. And these two patterns create quite the dance, especially when in conflict. By the way, couples can create a new pattern, but that’s jumping ahead a bit. I will address that in another post, but a good place to start is with 5 Days to a New Marriage to understand the pain cycle (negative pattern) and the peace cycle better (positive pattern).

So how do you identify your rut?

When I was in graduate school for my marriage and family therapy degree I was required to research and complete a family genogram. And it absolutely changed my life. It was so powerful that I continue to review it on occasion and I use it on a regular basis in my talks. I also ask couples to do some family genogram work at various points in our therapy. Once I saw my family genogram–essentially my family history played out through four generations–I was flooded with insight.

Not only did I understand myself better, but I understood my family better. I started to see where in my life I developed these patterns, how they started, and much, much more. For the first time I saw the roots of my rut which gave me the freedom to own my story, and the catalyst to create a new one as I learned and grew from the old one.

Lots of people are fearful of looking back into the past and doing genograms, but I think it’s a powerful tool.

But in case you are one of those people I have a couple of thoughts. One, the goal is not to go back in the past and live there. Two, the goal is not to go back and place blame or metaphorically beat people up. Instead, the goal is to better understand the environment you were raised in and how that shaped you in both negative and positive ways. This journey is the beginning to finding the rut you are stuck in. And finding that rut can help you better understand you own anxiety and how to use it as a catalyst for growth.  

How to Start

At the end of chapter 3 in The Anxious Christian I use some discussion questions, an exercise and a prayer to encourage people on this journey. So I thought I would share those with you below, and I pray that they are helpful on your own journey to discover the rut you are stuck in, in order that you may better understand yourself and live in the freedom that God is calling you towards.

Discussion Questions

  1. As you look back at your family of origin, what are one or two experiences that have really shaped who you are today? How?

  2. Thinking about some of your experiences growing up that shaped who you are: a) What feelings/emotions did you experience in those situations? b) Whenever you experienced those feelings/emotions, how did you tend to behave? What did you do? What was your coping behavior?

  3. What cycle of negative feelings and coping behaviors (pain cycle) has become a rut for you?


Develop a family genogram as a tool that will help assist you in your reflecting back on the past. For helpful instructions, see Genogram for Personal Use. Software for creating genograms is also available at GenoPro. (I used OmniGraffle on Mac to develop my personal genogram).


God, I pray that I can surrender to You any negative ways that have shaped me. And in Your grace I pray that You will give me the courage to face my freedom and reshape my future with You.

Just to give you an example of what a genogram can look like, click on the image below to see the genogram of the Kennedy family that was done by the Virginia Tech Marriage and Family Therapy program.

Kennedy Geno

This post is the fourth in a continuing series on the topic of transforming your anxiety. If you would like more help in learning to use your anxiety for good, check out my book The Anxious Christian, and work through the questions, exercises and prayer located at the end of each chapter. This can be a powerful experience alone, or in a small group.

Post #3: Transforming Your Anxiety: Welcoming Uncertainty Into Your Life

Post #2: Transforming Your Anxiety: Embrace Your Anxiety

Post #1: Transforming Your Anxiety: Anxiety and Your Story