I suppose you could say that that nearly all people who decide to seek out a therapist do so because they are unhappy with their life, or some part of it. Twenty years ago, when a person resisted changing something he or she was unhappy with, I made the assumption that the person wasn’t committed or was expressing “resistance.” For the past five years, however, I have been studying how the brain interacts with the mind and body, and I now have a greater appreciation for just how difficult change is for many people. Some of this difficulty seems to be related to an individual’s inherent temperament or life experiences and how they have interpreted and reacted to them, but much of it is brain-based “human nature.”
I have come to the conclusion that change is difficult because of the brain’s amazing ability to create habits. Over time, we function more and more on “autopilot,” forming habits of thinking, feeling, and doing that get hard-wired into our brains in the form of neural pathways. The human brain is an efficiency expert, creating pathways of neurons that essentially ensure we will continue to think, feel, and do the same things over and over. It has been said that up to 90% of our daily existence is made up of our habits. If that seems unlikely, try this little experiment: Keep a log of all the things you think about in a day, however briefly. Do this for a few days. Then go back and read your lists. See how little new material arises from day to day? It is as though our brains were computers running a simple program day after day, with the same thoughts, emotions, and behaviors repeating endlessly, with little variety.
If change seems hard, it’s because it is—from a neurobiological perspective. We need to go against our basic brain functioning to alter our habits in order to change our lives. The good news is we can do it if we are determined and willing to put in a little time practicing until a new habit is formed.
Let’s say you are unhappy with your body and want to start an exercise routine. You could lay out your gym clothes and shoes right next to your alarm clock or cell phone, set at the appropriate time to wake up and work out. You could tell your family and friends that you are starting a new exercise habit and would like their support and encouragement. You might ask a partner, coworker, or neighbor to go to the gym with you if accountability and companionship are likely to motivate you to go when you don’t feel like it. Any of these changes in your daily habits is likely to pay off. Just pick one and stick with it.
Start with one habit and reinforce it day by day. This will take somewhere between 28 and 40 days. It will work far better to start with one small change and build up to more. Be patient and compassionate with yourself, and reward yourself for doing something challenging. Don’t criticize or judge yourself if you don’t reach your goal each day. Just recognize that you are changing your life by changing your brain, one habit at a time. Change is hard, but in just one month, you will have built a new neural pathway in your brain which will form the basis of your new habit. It is far easier to work with human nature when we understand how the brain works to keep things the way they are, and when we understand what we need to do to create healthy, positive change.
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