Improving, removing, or otherwise altering patterns is what we do as therapists and coaches. But it’s quite challenging to truly change how someone moves and behaves because changing a pattern is a systemic process. If you change one pattern all the neural systems associated with it undergo change as well.  For those stuck deeply in a pattern, altering it can be slow, laborious, and often ineffective.  Why is this so difficult and how can we use a strategy called pendulation to change patterns more effectively?

The Importance of Patterns

Neurological patterns are so important to human movement and behavior. They provide our system with stability and efficiency in processing. Even a dysfunctional pattern is still a pattern. I would even argue that our identity is tied to, and determined by, our behavioral patterns — who we are to the outside world is largely determined based on what we do.
The neural operators that govern our processing are in competition with similar networks that, if unmasked, provide a different pattern and thus a different reality of who we are and how we move. So if one identifies at some level with a particular dysfunctional pattern as often happens in those with chronic pain, anxiety, or even inadequate athletic output, their perceptions hinge on the selected neural network. This makes the pull towards the network that much stronger and thus more difficult to change – IF we try to change it in one fell swoop. But what if we gave them access to the pattern they are familiar with while slowly replacing it with another? Enter the concept of pendulation. 

Pendulations and Reference Points

One mistake we often make with clients is to try to change everything about their “bad” patterns all at once. This can be threatening and destabilizing to behavior in the same way that making big, sudden movements is a bad idea when trying to coax a jittery squirrel to come closer.  How well is that new pattern going to stick? What about changing something foundational like their gait or breathing pattern? Or their perceptions of pain? Should I ask another rhetorical question? Does going cold turkey help most smokers quit? Uh no – it has a high level of instability, and I haven’t seen much success trying to have someone go cold turkey with a movement pattern either. 

​If a stimulus is too strong, it will only reinforce the previous pattern, because when we’re stressed we go back to what we know, even if it’s dysfunctional. 

​In The Body Keeps the Score (I know I keep referencing it but it really is tremendous), Bessel van der Kolk uses the term pendulation, coined by Peter Levine with his Somatic Experiencing model, to describe their treatment approach with trauma victims. Basically, they establish “islands of safety” in which they have patients slowly confront memories of trauma and then swing back to less threatening thoughts, or reference points, without losing control and falling all the way back into their dysfunctional patterns. 
We learn best from a position of security and consistency which I wrote about at length here. Using the principle of pendulation a la Levine we can be more effective in addressing movement dysfunction, too. Here are a few steps to try:

  1. Establish a reference point. It needs to be something somatic that they can feel, that is nonthreatening, and ideally takes us closer to the pattern we want to see. I will often use the left heel and the right arch (courtesy PRI) as reference points for altering closed chain movements. Awareness of the breath, and maintenance of tidal breathing during movement, are highly effective in nearly all scenarios. In those with high threat levels, let them pick the “island of safety” themselves.
  2. Show them the new pattern but allow them to keep the old one at first. Demonstrate and describe what you want to see, let them move in their typical fashion BUT require that they maintain the reference as an anchor. For example, “you can squat in whatever way that’s most comfortable but you must find, feel, and maintain ground contact with your left heel”.  This starts swinging the pendulum. They are good at their old pattern, let them have it at first. It promotes familiarity and a sense of control. Then slowly take it away with a consistent, secure approach. 
  3. As the pendulum swings farther, task complexity and diversity should increase with the addition of more reference points. This will serve to inhibit the old pattern is as they have to maintain an attentional focus on what’s being asked of them. 

​Neural patterns are our framework for movement and behavior. Changing them requires a consistent approach that operates on a pendulum from consistency and security to unfamiliarity and complexity allowing integration of a new pattern.

– Seth

*For those who have taken the PRI coursework, or any good neurological-based approach, this is much of what they preach with exercise prescription – slowly take away the old pattern. 

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