Do you find yourself repeating patterns year after year while making the same New Year’s resolutions? What causes the phenomena of habits or why you do what you do? How can you use this knowledge to assist you in changing habits? Quite simply, your habits are a result of the natural conditioning of your brain. The repetition of your thoughts, feelings and actions form and strengthen your brains neural pathways. Donald Hebb’s landmark discovery in 1949, “neurons that fire together wire together,” best explains the process of forming, strengthening, and solidifying your habits.6
Your Neural Pathways – Conditioning your brain
These neural pathways are similar to a roadmap leading you to your destination. The more you travel down a particular path, the easier it is to remember your way, so much so that it becomes second nature. This is the essence of your habit, the conditioning of your brains pattern of thinking, feeling or acting, so that it is second nature. Just consider your drive home from work. How many times have you arrived home and not remembered a portion of your journey? This is the power of conditioning your brain so that you can do something without consciously thinking about it.
Creature of Habit
We are wired to be a creature of habit. Have you ever noticed while on vacation you find yourself going to the same restaurant or same places in town because they have become familiar. You know how to get there, what type of food you will eat, the service etc. The adventure of finding a new place every night seems to require too much energy. If every time you drove home you had to relearn your route, or if acts such as tying your shoes, getting dressed, or making breakfast weren’t learned habits, this would be incredibly time consuming and energy draining. You wouldn’t have time to do much else in life if you didn’t have the capacity to learn and develop habits. Not to mention that as a species, we wouldn’t have evolved past the prehistoric era. We are drawn to do the same things over and over because we wired to follow the path of least resistance. In the case of habits, the same conditioning is at hand for healthy and unhealthy habits. Similar to choosing a new driving route you can transform your habits by choosing to condition new neural pathways so they become paths of least resistance.
Neurobiology of Self Sabotage
Understanding the process of forming neural pathways can shed light on why you repeat the same unhealthy patterns. Every time you participate in an unhealthy pattern you strengthen it. If you have been living in a residual state of stress, you have been strengthening these pathways and creating a neural architecture of stress. What is more, stress won’t allow you to meet the prerequisites for change. When stressed, you access the oldest and least plastic part of your brain that literally repeats the past over and over. When you operate from this part of the brain, you are least likely to be able to change.
The Plastic Paradox
To further validate the importance of managing stress, in its true-to-form plastic nature, the analytical brain changes into what it’s most influenced by. Consequently, because of the predominance of chronic stress, the analytical brain is highly influenced by the emotional brain. The repetition and emotional intensity of the stress response easily overrides feeble attempts at positivity; instead, the analytical brain changes in structure to match the stress. Norman Doidge refers to this phenomenon:
Neuroplasticity has the power to produce more flexible but also more rigid behaviors—a phenomenon I call “the plastic paradox.” Ironically, some of our most stubborn habits and disorders are products of our plasticity. Once a particular plastic change occurs in the brain and becomes well established, it can prevent other changes from occurring. It’s by understanding both the positive and negative effects of plasticity that we can truly understand the extent of human possibilities.11
Your All-Inclusive Brain
It’s important to understand how your brain processes information in order to create solid and supportive neural pathways. This includes the language you use in the conversations you have with yourself.
What happens when we say ‘don’t think about a problem?’
Your brain doesn’t know how to do this. To not think about it, your brain has to think about it. Do you spend more of your time focused on what you want or what you don’t want? Well-meaning parents, teachers, and authority figures often tell us what not to do. They think they are helping us, yet in actuality, they are telling us to send our brains in the direction we don’t wish to go. Your parents may tell you to watch out or be careful. Teachers tell you not to be late with your homework or not to side talk in class. Health authorities are notorious for telling us what foods, habits, or exercises to avoid. We do the same to ourselves by telling ourselves what we don’t want to think about:
- I wish I wasn’t so anxious.
- Why am I so stressed out?
- I don’t want to be late.
- I want to make sure I don’t forget that.
The optimist sees the donut, the pessimist sees the hole. — Oscar Wilde
Instead of stating what you don’t want, turn it around and state what you do want:
- How can I feel calmer?
- How can I shift my attention so I feel more centered?
- I want to be on time.
- I want to make sure I remember that.
Whatever you give your attention to forms your neural pathways. A classic myth in our culture helps to illuminate this issue: “Learn from your mistakes.” Learning from your perceived mistakes focuses you on your mistakes. Focusing on past mistakes or anticipating potential future ones only leads to feeling powerless. You drain your potential to make a real difference in the present, the only place you create results.
Even though your past plays a part in molding and developing your character strengths and your future inspires your dreams, it’s your attachment to living from the past or future that renders you powerless in the present.
Why New Year’s Resolutions Are Short-Lived
Perhaps you have heard that Mother Teresa wouldn’t attend antiwar rallies because they focus on the very energy of what she didn’t want—war. The new year is the time of year that record numbers of people bring to mind all of the things they don’t want to do anymore. Consider these New Year’s resolutions as they relate to nutrition habits:
- I won’t eat chocolate.
- I won’t overeat.
- I won’t eat sugar.
- I won’t eat late at night.
What are you thinking about now as you read these statements? What your brain actually understands from the statements you just read is:
I will eat chocolate, sugar, overeat, eat late at night, and drink alcohol.
To make sense of it, your brain has to think about it, picture it, and focus on it.
Here is what you could say instead to rewire your brain for accomplishing your New Year’s resolutions:
- I choose healthy and nutritious foods.
- I eat the perfect amount of food for my body.
- I eat three balanced meals per day.
- I finish eating by 7 p.m.
Understanding the way the brain processes what we think and feel is essential to creating new habits. To strengthen new pathways, we have to focus on what we want more than what we don’t want. This translates into focusing on being happy, confident, and joyful rather than focusing on not feeling sad, insecure, and anxious. The science of neural plasticity validates this straightforward path for our potential to rewire our brain for new habit.
Fortunately, similar to travelling down a new path until it becomes well-worn, you can develop and strengthen new neural pathways into well-worn habits. In other words, you can change your beliefs, habits and patterns of sabotage and develop new habits.
Levels of Awareness
To understand the deeper roots that drive your habits, you’ll need to be familiar with factors that govern human behavior. There are two primary levels of awareness:
- Conscious Mind Awareness
- Subconscious Mind Awareness
Conscious Mind Awareness
These levels of awareness are in constant communication with each other, thereby resulting in your choices, perceptions and experiences. The conscious mind is your rational, thinking mind. It has the ability to process approximately seven to nine bits of information per second. These bits of information include what you are thinking, feeling and doing as well as taking in your immediate surroundings. To demonstrate the processing ability of the conscious mind, think of five things right now. Do your best to keep these five things in your mind. Really focus on them. You can do it. Try harder to really concentrate on these five things. Well, how did you do? If you’re like most people, your head is still spinning from trying to hold onto those five thoughts. Why… because your conscious mind attends to one primary thought at a time. One thought and its emotional meaning to you, along with your current surroundings constitutes seven to nine bits of information. In this sense the conscious mind has the speed of a motor scooter.
Subconscious Mind Awareness
The subconscious mind on the other hand operates at a much faster pace. It is likened to the body’s computer. It contains all of the software programs for health, self- preservation, well-being, emotional attachment and daily habits. It carries out the software programs to the letter. It doesn’t reason like the conscious mind. It’s much more of a machine. As such similar to a computer, the input controls the output. The subconscious can process at least 20,000 bits of information per second. In this way the subconscious has the speed of a rocket ship.
Write it Down
A powerful method to instruct your subconscious mind to go to work for you at the speed of light is to write down what is important to you. When you write it down, you make it a prime software directive in your subconscious mind to be carried out like a mission. Each time you actively focus on what you want to achieve in your life you engage your subconscious mind to go to work for you behind the scenes. Make this the first thing you do every morning. By doing so, you will give direction to your subconscious mind. When you begin your day reviewing your written goals and focusing intently on what you want most in your life, you are training your mind to seek opportunities to fulfill your intention. We will be walking you through specific exercises to effectively tap into your subconscious mind by writing down and visualizing your target goals.
Coaching and Counseling
Hilary Stokes Ph.D. and Kim Ward Ph.D. have been a team for 20 years, specializing in mind, body, spirit psychology. They are the authors of the bestselling books The Happy Map: Your roadmap to the habit of happiness and Manifesting Mindset: The 6-step formula for attracting your goals and dreams and founders of Authenticity Associates Coaching and Counseling. They are passionate about combining the best of holistic and traditional approaches to health and happiness. If you are interested in learning the answers to the most frequently asked questions on how to decrease stress and increase happiness sign up for their free video series.