This has been a terrible winter by any measure, but one of the most frightening and dangerous effects has been on highway travel. Snowstorms have caused several multi-vehicle pileups, some fatal. The worst one (so far; it’s only February) happened in Wisconsin where most reports counted at least 50 cars that were involved in the calamity, and others said as many as 90. Whatever the number, you can see in the video that it seemed like an unending chain reaction. You can also see what may have been some of the immediate causes of the pileup: poor visibility from the snowstorm, slick roads, cars too close together, driving too fast for conditions – all adding up to the inevitable outcome.

When people come to me for help to stop unwanted behavior, like emotional eating, binge drinking, or other out-of-control behavior, they’ll often say, “I want to know why it happens.” It’s a very reasonable request. It gives people real satisfaction to understand the root of a problem. It can provide a sense of perspective or a useful insight, and those reasons may make it worth discussing. But I also try to explain that whatever the remote cause might have been, it’s mostly irrelevant in helping them to stop the behavior.

Unwanted behavior is the result of a series of events and experiences that lead up to the present. The original cause may have been pretty benign, but small causes can build on each other until they develop into very large effects. Finding the original reason that started this chain reaction doesn’t tell us how to keep the process from continuing. Recognizing old experiences and patterns of thought that may have led the behavior is essential in preventing the same problem from occurring again in the future. But for any change to happen now, the focus needs to be on the present, not the past.

I was discussing this with someone recently and while I was searching for an analogy to help me explain it, the image of the highway pileup came to me. I asked her what she thinks the first responders should do when they arrive at the scene. Should they start by investigating the cause while cars are crashing around them? Should they find the first guy who was going too fast or the one following too closely behind? Of course not. Those people may be long gone and are probably even oblivious to the mayhem they caused. The first thing to do is to try to prevent the very next crash from occurring and get everyone out of harm’s way.

After the responders are able to safely stop the traffic upstream and after attending to the injured and clearing the wreckage, it would make sense to go back and investigate the causes and take preventive measures to keep this from happening again. Some circumstances can’t be avoided, like the weather, but other causes can be addressed in order to minimize the likelihood and consequences of similar highway disasters occurring in the future.

The same applies to unwanted behavior. The first priority is to find ways to stop the behavior and prevent further damage. That means identifying and challenging the thoughts, beliefs and distortions that lead to the emotional reactions that the behavior is meant to cope with. It’s like The House that Jack Built. After that, you’ll have the time and perspective to do a useful postmortem so you can identify the sources of the problem and do what you can to make sure it doesn’t recur.

The video may be harrowing to watch, but if you’re struggling to overcome emotional eating or any unwanted behavior and you’re spending time focusing on the past or looking for others to blame for it, think about the image of those cars racing headlong toward the disaster, spinning out of control, and crashing into each other like bumper cars from hell. Then think about what you would do as a first responder.