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Mental Health

Mental health: a therapist explains the signs that you’re living your life on autopilot – and how to combat it

Amid all the doom and gloom in the world, switching off from it all is becoming more of a reality. We’ve spoken to consultant psychologist Dr Jeanina Mahrenholz about the signs of being on autopilot mode and how to overcome it.

How many of us have seen the film Groundhog Day?

You know, the one with Bill Murray where he is forced to relive the same day over and over again?

While the premise of the film isn’t technically realistic, many of us find ourselves spending our days the same way while dealing with numerous thoughts occupying our minds – after all, the average person will typically have more than 6,000 thoughts in a single day – something that can have an untold effect on our mental health.

Whether you’re thinking about relationships with family and friends, succeeding at work, news anxiety or thoughts about the future, our brains can become a minefield of thoughts that can take over while living out the same physical reality day to day.

This can create a disconnect between our physical and our mental state that we often feel uncomfortable talking about, and sometimes it can be easier to just switch off.

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This is where living your life in autopilot mode comes in, as it’s often accompanied by feelings of detachment, boredom and disconnection.

It’s something many of us have experienced, particularly amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as we go about our lives doing the same thing over and over again while trying to process all the things that can impact our lives.

“In mental health, one often interprets [being in autopilot] as the mind being overclouded with noise, emotions and unable to process or even compartmentalise thoughts,” says Dr Jeanina Mahrenholz, a consultant psychologist at Chelsea P. Medical Clinic

“This can be due to stress, anxiety, life changes, trauma or a lifestyle that leaves little room for balance.”

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Dr Mahrenholz tells Stylist that the brain, mind or body may go into survival mode as a result of these experiences and being on autopilot can be a way to cope and deal with life.

What are the signs that someone is in autopilot mode?

According to Dr Mahrenholz, the signs may differ per individual due to various situations, triggers, environments and expectations. But there are six key signs that people can look out for, starting with a lack of presence in the moment.

The psychologist adds that another sign someone is in autopilot mode is if they have difficulties adapting to change of plans or environment and often experience feeling numb, extreme exhaustion, insomnia and even panic attacks.

“This may occur when one has to live up to a high-pressure environment at work or even at home,” she tells Stylist.

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“Although when on autopilot there is in essence no sense of control to live one’s life as desired, the individual might not always be aware of this. Oftentimes one has to find awareness through acknowledging the exhaustion, anxieties or even experiencing burnout.”

How can someone overcome living in autopilot mode?

For those who acknowledge that they are living in autopilot mode and want to shift towards a calm mind, happy soul and life with purpose, Dr Mahrenholz says there are six key steps that someone can take – starting with having a dialogue with someone about how you feel.

“Discuss the situation with someone you trust,” she says. “Also explore the triggers or even evaluate when the autopilot mode started.”

“Once timelines and triggers are established, it’s important to counteract with positive actions and experiences,” says Dr Mahrenholz. “Take a step back from life by taking a break from your routine.”

The psychologist advises that people start with small changes so it doesn’t feel overwhelming, adding that a “short-term goal list might help”.

“Also, going back in time and reminding oneself of what brings joy and, if you’re open to it, seek professional help.

“Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is proven to be successful as it combines a variety of techniques and tools such as meditation, a non-judgmental environment, evaluation of thoughts and even physical exercises such as stretching to connect body and mind,” she advises.

“Every situation needs to be individually evaluated and sometimes [being on] autopilot is because one feels there is no other option or it’s related to life responsibilities. But if this is temporary, one might shift gradually back into the old or new self if the situation permits.

“It’s all about evaluating the time frame and the situation – as well as each individual’s response.”

If you feel like you are struggling, the NHS has additional information on recognising the signs and seeking help. 

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