Pavlov’s Dog

There was a time in my life when I was being controlled, manipulated really, by an outside force. It started innocently enough, but over time, I was consumed. My hours and days revolved around this outside force. I have no one to blame except myself, I am the one that allowed it to control me. 

We all make bad decisions in our youth. We are told that the most important thing is that we learn from those situations. Sometimes, the most important part is to learn before that decision affects your life, causing a butterfly effect that ripples throughout your lifetime. 

For me that time was when I started smoking as a teenager. Slowly, over time, these things started to dictate my life. Most of my time became engrossed with thoughts of when I could get my next cigarette. Everything revolved around when I could get my next puff, my next nicotine fix. While there was a chemical addiction, the biggest part of it was the habit of getting a smoke at certain times. I was in the habit of looking forward to lighting up, I was in the habit of needing one. God forbid that I run out of cigarettes. I always had to ensure that I had enough to get me through my next shift. 

I had sunk to becoming one of Pavlov’s dog’s, but instead of a bell it was other triggers. Getting in the car…ring…time to light up, stopping at a convenience store…ring…better get a pack, break time…ring, ring…go outside to light up. When I came to the realization that these little white sticks were controlling me, that’s when I got mad. Mad at myself for allowing it, mad at myself for letting it go on so long. I was ready to change things.

For those unfamiliar with Ivan Pavlov, he was a Russian neurologist who discovered that the dogs involved in his experiments would salivate almost on command when a sound was associated with their food. Basically, he would ring a bell right before he fed the dogs. Eventually, the dogs started to salivate at the sound of the bell, not the sight or smell of the food. They became accustomed to a pattern.

My entire existence had become finding the next opportunity for a cigarette, waiting for the next bell, as it were. It had consumed me. The warning labels tell us that smoking causes lung cancer, that it is harmful to fetuses. Commercials show us people who have suffered the long term health effects of smoking, but they never talk about the all consuming effect that they have on one’s life. We are not warned about the constant desire for the next one.

Once I recognized the problem and identified the triggers, I was able to change the habit. Not to say it was an easy habit to break, but identifying the triggers and avoiding them made it much easier, no more bells.

We all get into habits like this without realizing it. While it is not always as detrimental to our physical health, it can destroy our mental or emotional health, and even sabotage our lives. We get into the habit of negative thinking, the habit of self-deprecation or the habit of not believing in ourselves. Without realizing it, we become one of Pavlov’s dogs.

As runners, we tend to get into negative thought patterns which can lead to less than desired results either in our races or our training runs. In fact, they can outright destroy dreams. For some, one little thing going wrong in a race will have domino-like results in upcoming miles. A negative thought will fester in our mind and start to consume us. Before we know it, misery has consumed our minds, like the nicotine consumed my thoughts. The trick for runners is to know when a situation has taken a turn, when we are about to go down that spiral of despair, and realize that a trigger has happened. Then you must stop those negative thoughts before they cause the entire run to go off track. 

We also tend to do this in life as well. 

Negative thought patterns manipulate our decisions, guide our judgements. We refuse to step out of our comfort zone because we have a habit of telling ourselves that we are not worthy, that we cannot accomplish something great. 

At least with cigarettes there is a tangible item to blame, the problem with negativity is that we often have nothing physical and no one source. The root cause could be some childhood incident, some discouragement from an adult, a failure on a school project, it could be any number of things that built up over time and started the pattern. In the end, the source does not matter as much as knowing the triggers and the pattern, then making the attempt to change them.

What have you missed in life because you were afraid to take a chance?