Have you ever had the experience of wanting to change a behavior, and, starting with the best of intentions, you only go so long before you start to slide back into old habits? Well, you wouldn’t be alone. Some of our habits go back a looooong way, and so changing them is going to take some coaxing.
Not too many people can sustain change through sheer willpower alone. They need systems and supports to build up the mental “muscle memory” that supports the new behavior.
At the same time, there are some very real biological forces at work to keep you from changing, even though you know change is the right thing to do. Here are 3 way your brain resists changing and some ways to work-around them.
Your brain’s job is to keep you safe
As far as the primitive brain is concerned, whatever you’ve been doing that hasn’t killed you is good to repeat again. That’s because the survival instincts of your primitive, or reptilian brain, also known as the amygdala, are hard-wired into us. Above all, the brain’s primary job is to keep you alive, and that means it’s okay to do what you’ve always done.
But another part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, is responsible for our executive functioning, the forward-thinking and planning part. This part of your brain is steering the ship.
That’s what makes changing so hard: part of us wants to grow and change, and part of us wants to stay the same, acting as an anchor. Successful efforts in behavior change always take both sides into consideration — the desire and the resistance — and also must harness other features of our brains so that we are using the brain instead of letting it inadvertently work against us.
One way to move through barriers is to start by naming them. By naming a vague feeling of resistance, it loses some of its power to rule over you. Let’s say you know you should eat more vegetables, but when you think about it there is a wall of resistance and overwhelm:
What do I buy?
How do I prepare it?
Will it be good?
I don’t have time.
It’s not what I’ve done…
Each of the first three questions come from a place of fear, of not knowing. That’s the amygdala talking. A good work-around for this type of resistance is to be reassuring; tell yourself it’s going to be fine, we don’t have to do it all at once, we’re just going to try one new thing this week, it doesn’t have to be perfect… This sort of positive self-talk can calm down the fear response long enough for you to be willing to experiment and try new things.
Your brain wants pleasure
Dopamine is the primary brain chemical that is associated with motivation and reward; we are driven to do things that will bring us pleasure and try to avoid things that will bring us pain. Since many of our bad habits — like stress eating crackers or bread — also give us pleasure, it’s easy to see why we might resist changing!
A primary strategy in any successful behavior change effort, including those used in my program that helps people quit the rampant addictions of sugar and flour, Breaking Free from Sugar, is to heighten your awareness to the other pleasures in your life. To seek out and luxuriate in pleasures that don’t involve sugar and flour. This can be as simple as taking a big deep breath outside, or as complex as going for long hike.
Here’s a big tip for increasing your pleasure: anticipation. In addition to being fully present for those pleasurable experiences, thinking about them in advance with anticipation will increase the amount dopamine you are receiving. Research on travel has shown that your brain produces as much dopamine when you are thinking about and planning a vacation as when you’re actually taking the vacation!
Along these lines, giving yourself more reasons to make dopamine will go a long way towards making change pleasurable. That means breaking down your steps so small that you are ensured to have lots of small wins along the way.
Your brain wants to automate
Another biological feature that fights against change is the brain’s desire to automate as much as possible. Thinking requires energy, and energy is a limited resource, and so the brain makes short cuts — or habits — whenever possible. Just think of how much mental energy it would take up if you had to think about all the muscular and neurological coordination it takes for walking — it would be exhausting! Once you’ve done something a few times, your brain automatically wants to make a habit out of it so it can stop thinking about it.
And the brain doesn’t actually care if it’s a good habit or a bad habit — it just likes a habit!
Since habits happen automatically, the first step to changing a behavior is just noticing that you’re doing it! Then, notice what the trigger for the behavior is, so you can plan some work-arounds.
Here are some tips for changing a behavior.
- Habit change starts with noticing. Noticing a habit is the first step to being able to change it. At first, you might still automatically start a habit before you notice that you’re doing it. Then you notice when you’re about to do it (and in the beginning may do it anyway). Eventually you can catch yourself before you take action — becoming clearer about the triggers — and redirect the habitual behavior towards something else.
- Start small; take baby steps. What is a first step that is so small, so easy that you can easily commit to doing it without putting up resistance? You might put up resistance to running 3 miles 5 times per week, but less likely to put up resistance to lacing up and taking a 5-minute walk. Or even just opening the front door and taking in a deep breath. Starting small minimizes resistance, and starts the process of creating new neural pathways, or habits.
- Reward the process, not just the goal or benchmarks. If your goal is to run a marathon, don’t wait to celebrate until you’ve done a 10k. Rather, acknowledge the good work of putting on your training sneakers every day. In this way, you’ll be giving your brain little hits of dopamine — the reward and motivation neurotransmitter — all along the way, instead of just saving it up for reaching a challenging goal.
- Add on a (good) new habit to an existing one. As described earlier, the brain likes to automate thoughts and actions to conserve energy. That’s why there’s a helpful strategy for creating new habits called “habit stacking,” where you add on a new habit to one you already have. For example, if you already drive to the supermarket, you can add on the habit of parking on the far side of the parking lot. Or, if you find yourself in the kitchen waiting for the coffee to drip or water to boil, you can use that time for sneaking in some extraneous movement.
Dr. Andrea Grayson is a behavior change consultant and teaches about behavior in the Masters of Public Health Program in the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont. Her program Breaking Free from Sugar, which applies research and best practices from multiple disciplines, has helped hundreds of people successfully quit.