This is my favorite time to reflect over the past year; the events I feel good about, neutral, and what I know I need to change. It always feels good to reflect on positive accomplishments, but what makes some things so difficult to change? Looking at the topic of changing habits has been a long-time passion for me as I witness change every day with our clients. I have watched "Lee" make the decision to exercise more and over a period of 8 weeks, decide to eat better, start managing stress effectively, and take his health seriously. I have watched how what looked like a "simple" decision made on a whim become a 3 year habit that continues successfully. I have painfully watched "John" attempt to implement the same changes as "Lee" with success for only a few weeks at a time. What has made "Lee" so successful compared to "John?" A paper published by Duke University found that more than 40% of the actions people perform each day aren't actual decisions but habits. Let's look at how habits form and can CHANGE.
When we are learning a new skill, a part of the brain called the basal ganglia remains active for the entire process. If there is a reward earned at the end of the process, the brain has a spike of activity as it processes the reward. After multiple times of going through the new routine, the brain only needs a small cue about what is to happen then actually goes into a state of inactivity until the reward is earned. The habit has been formed and higher thinking centers are no longer needed to achieve the reward. This is why you may feel stress and unconsciously find yourself eating or pouring a glass of wine as the routine has become automatic with the cue of feeling stress. The brain creates a craving for whatever reward has become a part of the habit. When the cue is observed, the brain goes right into experiencing a craving until the routine is completed and the reward is gained. In terms of health habits, these rewards may be as unhealthy as eating an entire container of ice cream or watching TV for hours on the couch. They may also be as healthy as the endorphins gained after a workout or the pride earned in watching lean muscle mass build, belly fat melt away, and clothes fit better.
We all have busy and demanding lives so the reward of extra sleep or extra relaxation can be enticing. The foods included in the Standard American Diet (SAD) are chemically altered to be addictive, causing a strong neurological reward as the pleasure centers of the brain light up, ensuring the brain to lock into the pattern of reward. A specific cue, routine, and reward emerges and becomes automatic. The brain anticipates this loop of behavior and cravings emerge that can be difficult to overcome. Giving into these cravings with routines that are destructive to your health can leave you stuck in patterns that cause complete and utter misery.
If you are ready to change realize there is science behind how to create a new habit AND how to change an established habit. As new habits form and are used, activity develops in the frontal cortex of the brain that controls behavior inhibition and self discipline. It is more than possible. The more frequently the new habits are chosen over the old habit, the stronger these brain pathways become. What is the secret to how many people are able to implement a change that becomes a life-long healthy routine versus others who struggle repeatedly for years? Dr. Leah Hahn, D.C. will teach "The Secrets of Eradicating Unhealthy Habits and Implementing Healthy Habits" on December 11th at 6pm at Body In Balance Wellness Center.Please call 303.215.0390 to reserve your spot as classes fill quickly. We hope December is a time of building peace for you and your loved ones. May the start of 2020 be one of health and happiness. Remember, Create Health by Choice, Not by Chance.