Think Change Is Difficult? It’s All in Your Head

running shoes crossing a line in the roadI 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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  • Mike

    Mike

    September 25th, 2013 at 3:52 AM

    Creating the new habits? That’s the easy part.
    But the breaking out of the old ones? Now that’s the kicker.

  • Jason

    Jason

    September 25th, 2013 at 8:16 AM

    When I first tried to stop smoking I thought that oh no, this is going to be such a nightmere.
    But then I really commited myself to the effort and honestly once I did that it became so easy for me. I know that it is a struggle for some but once I finally said that this was it and made it through those forst few days, it is like that became my new normal and I was fine.
    I would hope that everyone would have it that easy when trying to make significant life changes but I know it can;t always be like that. But what I can tell you is that once you set your mind to it it s true that you can accomplish anything, you just have to shoo away all of those negative voices and those hints of self doubt and worry from time to time.

  • Donna

    Donna

    September 26th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    I just can’t seem to get over the big hurdles, you know? Every Sunday I make the promise that on Monday I am going to eat right and start an exercise program, and then Monday rolls around. I start out the day with the best of intentions but by the time lunch gets here, forget about it. I always say I have no willpower, and now apparently I am not giving it enough time to become a habit. But how can I do that when I can’t even make it through the first day? Do I need to hire someone to hold my hand for the first few weeks so that I can actually make it through those hardest times successfully?

  • macy

    macy

    September 27th, 2013 at 10:43 AM

    Why does it have to be such a big deal that change is hard? Why are we so afraid of something being a little difficult?

    If you want to make the changes bad enough, then you do what has to be done to do it, plain and simple. It doesn’t matter if it’s in your head or in the ground, you do what you have to do to make it work. When did we all become so afraid of having to work a little bit to accomplish something?

  • Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD

    Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD

    September 27th, 2013 at 6:06 PM

    Donna, Your experience is fairly typical, so try not to beat yourself up because reality isn’t in line with your intentions. Here are a couple of suggestions… Why not try starting ONE new habit, say going for a brisk walk each morning before breakfast, rather than trying to start a new diet and exercise program simultaneously ? And since you have by now had a few experiences with a Monday start date that may have created negative associations in your mind, why not try starting a new healthy habit on Sunday or Tuesday or any other day you choose ? I would also suggest that you get a copy of Charles Duhigg’s new book on the power of habit for some really interesting information about how habits are formed and changed. Good luck with your new habits ! Diann

  • Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD

    Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD

    September 27th, 2013 at 6:10 PM

    Mike, I agree that it is easier to start new habits than to “kick” the old ones, especially if they are addictive in nature (meaning, they “light up” the pleasure centers of the brain). Many people have success with what I call swap-outs, where they swap one habit for another and reward themselves for doing so until the new habit is ingrained, which takes about one month. Thanks for your comment, Diann

  • JOY

    JOY

    September 30th, 2013 at 3:54 AM

    I can’t imagine writing every thing that I think about in one day.
    That seems like it would stress me out alone!
    But I do think that if you devote a lot of time to overcoming one bad habit, you can do it. But it has to be more that just saying I am going to do this.
    It has to be a lot more thoughtful and planned out than that.
    A perfect example is weight loss
    You have to plan your meals in advance, your exercise times, basically schedule your days in a way that helps you create success. When you do this long enough this is what becomes your habit and this is what is hard to break out of/

  • Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD

    Diann Wingert, LCSW, BCD

    September 30th, 2013 at 1:26 PM

    Joy, I agree that writing down all of your thoughts for even a single day would be stressful, but it would probably be enough to convince you that there is whole lot of useless chatter going on most of the time and that it is incredibly repetitive. A book I highly recommend to folks who are interested in learning how to change their life by changing their mind (and its habits) is “The Tools” by Stutz and Michels. Thanks for your comment. Be Well, Diann

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