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All about “Active Conditioning”


Active Conditioning graphic by Andrew Wilson


The opposite of active is passive.  Many, maybe most of us, have been passively conditioned by the random events in our lives.  [And by TV]  We didn’t choose what was programmed into us. Life just happens, no matter what we want. We learn from an early age that it is a lot easier to give up our dreams than it is to work to achieve them. And if you are not really responsible, you can't be punished if things go wrong, "like they always do."

Like water finding it’s way down a mountain, our thoughts tend to follow along the same eroded/conditioned paths again and again.  Yet we somehow remain surprised when the outcomes programmed into us by passive conditioning and random disasters play out… yielding the same disappointing outcomes time after time.  In AA a wise man said; “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results every time.”  The first step in being restored to sanity by a higher power is to have the desire to be restored to sanity.  No desire? No change.  Being “restored to sanity” does not mean that PTSD is insanity.  It only means that when we are sane, in our right minds, we can make different, creative choice aimed at getting what we want, instead of settling for what we’ve always gotten.

Change requires desire. I believe that just as Pavlov conditioned dogs to drool; people can choose to systematically condition themselves if they want to. Can you believe that?  I’m saying people Can consciously, actively choose the programming or conditioning they want to practice.  That’s why we call it “Active Conditioning.”  A.C. is a simple, infinitely variable skill, a brief behavior pattern anyone can practice, whenever they want to.  The more practice, the more automatic the conditioning.  It’s not only okay to make choices to try to get what you want, it’s necessary to have a life of joy.  Not free of pain, but plenty of happiness… joy.

A little info about “conditioning.” Most folks know a little something (or more) about  Pavlov and his dogs.  Back in the 1890s Ivan Pavlov, a Russian, was studying dog digestion. When he fed his dogs, he rang a bell.  After what Pavlov called  “conditioning”, the dogs would salivate when they heard the bell. For this he won a Nobel Prize in 1904. Today this kind of association training is called “classical conditioning.” Now you know the details of the story.

I want to help people use the knowledge of conditioning to consciously re-set their goals, rather than follow programmed thinking like “This is the way it has always been, and this is the way it will always be.”  That is wrong, and to follow that line of thinking condemns us to the same unsatisfying results forever. 

Wouldn’t it be grand if we could program ourselves to overcome depression, lack of motivation, and procrastination?  I’m not saying that we have to sacrifice to control everything we don’t want.  I’m talking about learning to want the Right things… Things we choose for ourselves.  Imagine if we could re-set our sails to race effortlessly to a destination we choose.  People were not intended to drift along whatever course the breeze might decide.  We learn and we grow as a direct result of making choices.  That is what freedom is all about. We don't waste energy trying to chase the wind. We make decisions to set the sails.

Active Conditioning helps people make better choices and get better results. ’m suggesting that, with practice, we can insert a new step into the equation. We can Take notice/ Take action and Re-condition.

As soon as you notice anxiety or stress you can perform a simple reconditioning routine.  Take a deep breath and blow it out as if blowing out the candles on a cake. Take another deep, cleansing breath.  Blow out the candles again. Then activate your personal re-conditioning program with the question: “How relaxed will I allow myself to feel right now?” or something along those lines. For thousands of years people have been working on controlling their breathing to influence their mental state. People have continued the practice because it really works. You can greatly influence your mental state by making a simple decision. You can practice making your own decisions, based on what you want, not controlled by "fate".  It just takes a fraction of a second to realize you can turn it off or change the channel.  You own the TV.  It does not own you…

SequencesYou can choose a new channel for your own patterns of behavior.  Like a tai chi martial artist that practices a particular sequence until it is as natural as breathing, you can decide how and what to think.  Instead of thinking “I made a huge sacrifice not to give in to road rage and flip off the dick head who cut me off!!!” you can choose to think “What an idiot. I need to watch out.  I’m so glad that I don't have to be in such a hurry. And he can not ruin my day.” You don’t HAVE to respond a particular way just because that's the way you have always done it.

Another idea to factor in:
“Normal,” un-stressed, un-traumatized folks wake up with  a stress level of maybe 2 out of 10.  Bad rush hours can take that up a couple of notches, a nasty boss, a few more notches, mean wife – he might get all the way up to 8 on the scale.  But a good dinner and a little sex… then down to zero stress and sleep.
Post Traumatic Stress people wake up with a stress level of 7.5.  It’s part of the physiological changes that take place in a normal brain responding to abnormal circumstances.  This is not a character defect nor are the sleep disturbances and anger issues that go along with it.

Of course, all that doesn’t seem to matter when the Stressed Out person seems to “Go Ballistic Over Nothing!” when the smallest things go wrong.  Doesn’t take much to put a guy over 10 when he is already at 8.75!

The hard thing to deal with is that the person with ptsd feels normal  when running at 7 to 8.  That’s the way we Always feel.  We with ptsd often surprise ourselves with how instantly and automatically  we go ballistic.  As if we had no control.  There is no time between stimulus and response.  It’s a survival mechanism that stays with us after combat.

Another problem is that PTS brains are not particularly sensitive to emotions other than anger or fear. People say we can’t be intimate.  We feel emotionally numb. The volume is already turned up so loud on stressors that it’s hard to pay attention to feelings and emotions that merely whisper to us.  “Nuanced feelings?”  Forget that. 

In other words; if I’m always giving 75% of my energy to dealing with chronic stress from PTSD, I only have 25% of my attention to give to solving problems, building solid relationships, and trying to be happy.  I only have 25% of my life left overt to be alive!

If that were the end of the story, That Would Be Depressing As Hell.

Fortunately, we now know, through the miracle of neuro- magnetic visualization and incredible brain chemistry research what is actually happening in the brain as it happens. What we are learning is that Recovery is possible. Like stroke victems, you are not necessarily "cured" of the injury. The broken part of the brain stays broken. But we can, through practice, teach different parts of the brain to take over the functions of the injured part.

Active Conditioning acts like a pillow between stimulus and response so we can consciously dial the anger back down and create just a tiny space between the stimulus and response.  We need that space to decide how we will react, otherwise its all pre-programmed, automatic, and often completely inappropriate.

This is not to say anger does not have it’s value or it’s place.  Of course it does.
As long as I can remain angry, I can stay focused on you, and not have to take responsibility for me. Sometimes we are not aware that it’s our choices that are blowing us towards dangerous shoals. We think “We’re jinxed anyway.  Doomed.  Why should I even try to overcome anger?  I Like Anger.”

Anger can easily decend into rage.  Rage is a fundamental primate survival skill.  Remember the apes in the movie “2001”using bones for clubs?  Uncapped rage can consume our lives, burning up over things we can not control or even influence.  It’s like an addiction.  Or we can invest our lives in the realm of what we can influence or, personally, what we can control. Giving into Rage is about the polar opposite of Active Conditioning... It's conditioning all right. But there is no CHOICE in it. Except the choice not to choose.

Another sad observation: in our PTSD world, stress evokes the un-conditioned responses of anger, confusion, avoidance, or depression.  These, and other uncontrolled, unpleasant and ill-managed stress reactions, often drive people away from us.  The worst of it is that what stressed out Veterans need most of all in a crisis is relieable relationships, where it's okay if we "have our moments of difficulty" maintaing what the rest of the world considers "good manners." When we tear into the people who are closest to us, we can loose the support of a resilient social safety net, sometimes forever.

Only a strong social safety net (Family?) can divert us from the crash and burn that always comes when stress eventually overwhelms our coping skills.  Stress always wins over coping because coping is 100 percent reactive. Coping is alway playing catch up. This is a losing strategy... Fortunately, with Recovery we can choose to change the course of our lives. We can learn to reprogram our minds so we don't need the coping skills because we have learned how to think differently about stressors that used to tear us up. In other words, coping skills for dealing with stress become irrelevant when the stress has somehow evaporated as a result of us changing our habits of thought. It sounds simple because it is simple.

Recovery is not a game and it's not easy. Recovery is akin to learning a new skill like bicyle riding or playing guitar. It takes desire and it takes practice. Before all else is the belief that change is possible. That belief is what we want to be selling!

What if a person could have a sudden awakening and overnight learn how to take charge of their mental and physical condition?  Just imagine: you blink, then realize that you can bring to pass anything you desire, through the infinite powers of your mind.  What would you choose if you could choose anything?  What would you try if you knew you couldn’t fail?


This awareness of the personal power of choice and desire is the beginning of Recovery.



Gannt Chart showing progressive steps of Active ConditioningDr. Richard Weaver's 26 principles


A bar comprised of military decorations awarded in Vietnam including a bronze star, and a purple heart.