The Neuroscience of Changing Habits

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits | True Radiance Healing Arts(Reading time: approx 5 minutes)

Our culture tends to promote a “go big or go home” approach to changing habits, but it turns out that this is completely counter to what works with our brain.

Have you ever thought about changing a habit in your life – maybe starting an exercise routine or getting back into a creative hobby? We tend to make big plans for ourselves with goals like this. We might say to ourselves,

“From now on I’m going to _____ every day,” or “I’m going to set aside a whole day to _____”

These are examples of big changes in habits. Occasionally we’re able to carry out a big change like this for a little while, like a New Year’s Resolution that lasts for a few days or maybe weeks, but we typically don’t sustain them.

When our best laid plans begin to come apart and we find ourselves not sticking to the big goal we set for ourselves, there’s a tendency to beat ourselves up. We think the reason we weren’t successful is that we didn’t try hard enough, we got lazy, or we just don’t have enough willpower.

In fact, the number one reason our attempts at changing habits fail isn’t because of any shortcoming on our part – it’s because of our brain.

Deep in the midbrain is a structure called the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for our fight, flight, or freeze response when we encounter a threat. This part of the brain is always on the lookout for things that are different – and it equates differences in our usual routine with potential threats.

Because the amygdala is closely tied in with the brain stem and the nervous system, it can trigger a reaction in the body before we think about it. When this happens, we often find ourselves on the couch watching TV, grabbing a snack, or pretty much doing anything except for the new goal we meant to do.

This system, while of great benefit when survival is at stake, is less convenient at other times. For example, when you decide you’re going to start exercising every day when you haven’t been exercising at all for a while. Since it’s not part of your usual habits, the amygdala can perceive this big change as a threat. The amygdala sounds the alarm and suddenly you find yourself in fight, flight or freeze – doing nothing, or perhaps chowing down on a donut, but almost certainly *not* exercising.

Meanwhile, wrapped around the midbrain is the cortex. The cortex handles all of our complex thinking: language, creativity, imagination, and strategy. When the amygdala is triggered, all of those resources are temporarily offline and the amygdala is in charge of our behavior.

This means that although we can use our cortex to set goals for ourselves, to imagine changes we’d like to make in our lives, and to make choices in our long-term best interest, all those best laid plans can come to a halt when the amygdala detects a difference in our routine.

Given this sensitive tripwire in our brain, how can we actually make the changes we want in our lives?

The Neuroscience of Changing Habits | True Radiance Healing ArtsThe most effective way to make a lasting change or make progress on a big goal is to break it down into small steps. This approach is called “kaizen,” a Japanese word meaning “incremental daily improvement.” In this case, we’re talking about taking very, very small steps to accomplish a big goal or develop a new habit.

Making changes using small steps allows us to sneak past the amygdala without setting off the alarm bells. Small in this case means 30 seconds to 5 minutes at a time, repeated over time.

Besides being an effective way to change habits in general, a kaizen approach to a changing habits is ideal if you haven’t been able to find the time or energy to start, if you’re a perfectionist, or if the idea of making the change is overwhelming or maybe even makes you a bit nervous.

Here are some examples of changes that work really well with a kaizen approach:

  • Developing a writing habit by writing for 5 minutes – even just writing one sentence – a day
  • Starting an exercise routine starting with simply putting on your exercise shoes, doing one stretch, or walking to the end of the driveway and back
  • Drinking more water by filling a glass or bottle with water in the morning and keeping it with you
  • Learning to meditate by reminding yourself to take a deep breath periodically throughout the day or by focusing on a mantra or affirmation for a few minutes at a time
  • Practicing gratitude by sending a text to a friend every evening with one moment you are grateful for that day
  • Getting back into a hobby you used to love, such as painting or swimming, by imagining yourself doing it, in as much sensory detail as possible, for one minute a day

The small step may seem absurdly small. You might wonder how such a little step could actually get you anywhere, but consider this:

  • Even if you’re only writing for 5 minutes a day, that’s 25-35 minutes over the course of the week and about 2 hours in a month. That may well be more time than you’re spending on it now.
  • Make the bargain with yourself to do the small step. If you feel like doing more, you can always do that. For example, if you set a small step goal of putting on your walking shoes and walking to the mailbox, you can always go to the end of the block and back instead if you’re feeling inspired.
  • All our habits have corresponding neural networks in the brain. Those neural networks get reinforced and strengthened through repetition – not duration. In other words, in building a habit it’s much more effective to do something 20 times for 30 seconds at a time than it is spend 10 minutes doing it just once.
  • Taking these small steps tends to make a goal feel more manageable and it increases our motivation to do them. We get a taste for it and after a little while it feels easier than it did before we started.

How small is small enough? Your small step should be easy enough that you can’t help but do it. If you find yourself not getting to it, take that simply as feedback that you haven’t made the step small enough. Lower your expectation of yourself even further until you can easily do it.

Given how minor and relatively quick it is to do, it helps to put a structure in place to help you remember to do it. A few examples of structures that work well are having a friend or partner do it with you, setting a reminder on your phone or calendar, or putting a sticky note reminder in a place where you’ll see it every day.

One last key to success with small steps: Give yourself credit for doing even the tiniest of steps toward your goal. It may feel a bit ridiculous to part of you (the part that thinks if you haven’t gone “all the way” then you haven’t done it all), but celebrating these small actions acts like gasoline on the little fire you’ve started. It stimulates the reward center in the brain, releasing neurochemicals that help to reinforce the new neural networks you’re building.

If you’re curious how a small steps approach might apply to your goals, I’m happy to talk to you about it. Just send me an email or give me a call.

Black and White Thinking: Good or Bad?

Black and White Thinking | True Radiance Healing ArtsI was talking to a client a few years back. She was feeling overwhelmed and stressed out. She said to me, “Everyone I know is in chaos right now.” Knowing how our thoughts can impact our emotional state, I asked her, “Is that really true? Everyone?”

She paused, running through her family and friends in her mind. “No, not everyone. Actually, just 5 people.” She let out a breath and started to relax.

Dichotomous thinking, sometimes called black and white thinking, is seeing things as all good or all bad. It lumps the whole world or an entire spectrum together in one big generalization, increasing our chances of feeling overwhelmed.

We miss the complexity and subtlety in situations because we can’t see multiple perspectives or allow that there might be more than one acceptable way of doing things. This can add pressure to our relationships.

It’s fairly common for all of us to do this once in a while, especially if we’re already feeling stressed, but for some people this thinking style is more pervasive. Unfortunately, dichotomous thinking can make us feel even more stressed out. A habit of dichotomous thinking has also been associated with depression and other mental illnesses.

These kinds of all-or-nothing thoughts are also associated with perfectionism, telling us that if we didn’t do it perfectly, it was a complete failure. It robs us from a sense of satisfaction with our life because it’s not possible to meet the expectations we set for ourselves and others. It can also keep us from even starting a project, because we’ve been told, “if you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.”

There’s an old story about the farmer and his son. The farmer had a horse. One day when the son was trying to break the horse, he threw off the young man and he broke his arm. All the people in the town said to the farmer “this is terrible!” but the farmer shrugged his shoulders and replied “is it good or is it bad?”

Soon after this, some men from the army appeared in the town. They drafted all the young men who were able to fight. They didn’t take the farmer’s son because he had a broken arm. The people of the town exclaimed “you are so lucky that they didn’t take your son—it’s a good thing his arm was broken.” And the farmer replied “is it good or is it bad?”

Then the farmer’s horse got out of the field and ran away. The people said “this is awful news” but the farmer replied “is it good or is it bad?”

The next day the farmer’s horse returned—and brought several other wild horses with him. The townspeople remarked “you are so lucky! This is great!” And the farmer simply said “is it good or is it bad?”

Black and White Thinking | True Radiance Healing ArtsThere are very, very few events in our lives that are inherently good or bad. When we look back at even the most challenging of times in our life – events we would never have chosen – this is often when significant growth happens. Gifts can ultimately come from dire circumstances. Judging things as good or bad oversimplifies our experiences.

Given that black and white thinking skews our perception of reality and can take a toll on our health, relationships, and productivity, what can we do to catch it and change it?

We can think of dichotomous thinking as a habit of the mind. Like any habit, it can be changed over time when we put a conscious focus on it.

The first step is to notice what you’re saying to yourself – particularly when you’re feeling stressed. Be on the lookout for anything you might be saying to yourself or to other people with words like “everything,” “everyone,” “always,” “never,” or “nobody.” Even the words “good” or “bad” can signal that we’ve fallen into black and white thinking.

When you notice you’re making this kind of generalization or judgment, ask yourself, “Is that really true?” There isn’t much in our lives that is absolutely true all of the time or with all people.

Now ask yourself, “What might be more accurate?” See if you can be more specific. Challenge yourself to see from someone else’s perspective or come up with other ways of looking at a situation (even though you may not believe they’re “right”).

In some cases, this exercise can immediately help to lower your stress level. If dichotomous thinking is common for you, it will likely take some practice before you reap the full benefit. It’s within your power to choose to think differently – and feel better because of it.

On Wanting to Protect Others from Suffering

shutterstock_280399631 drowing rubber duck

I caught myself the other day, composing a birthday post to a friend on Facebook, about to write “I wish you all good things.” I stopped in my tracks, thinking “is that really what I would wish for them?”

While part of me certainly doesn’t want my friends and family to encounter hardships or to be unhappy, another part of me wouldn’t want to take that way from them, either.

Grappling with challenges is fundamental to our growth and evolution as people. To protect those close to us from those struggles or to wish it away would be to confine them to a life of mediocrity and inertia.

When we undertake a new skill or project, we are bound to make mistakes and have disappointments as we learn, little by little, a new territory. To avoid the experience of falling down, we must never venture to walk. Mastery will always be out of reach unless we risk failure.

Through wrestling with difficult experiences we learn what we are capable of handling — and in some cases we expand our capacity for resilience. Author and mythologist Michael Meade says that when we come through a crisis in our lives, we have the choice to grow bigger or shrink smaller as people. Without these tests of fortitude we have no opportunity to become bigger people.

I recently stumbled on this quote from Friedrich Nietzsche, who ventured to take this idea a step further — not just releasing the desire to protect others from challenges, but actively wishing it for them:

“To those human beings who are of any concern to me I wish suffering, desolation, sickness, ill-treatment, indignities — I wish that they should not remain unfamiliar with profound self-contempt, the torture of self-mistrust, the wretchedness of the vanquished: I have no pity for them, because I wish them the only thing that can prove today whether one is worth anything or not — that one endures.”

Alain be Botton writes about Nietzsche’s stance in his book, Consolations of Philosophy:

“Fulfillment was to be reached not by avoiding pain, but by recognizing its role as a natural, inevitable step on the way to reaching anything good.”

I confess I still find it hard to watch friends make choices in their lives that I predict will lead to misery. And harder still to watch it in the children who are dear to me. Yet, I also would not want for them a watered-down existence of perpetual comfort with no growth.

I find some consolation in this idea, given that we can’t actually protect ourselves or anyone else from hard times. The friend who would choose the path I see as leading to certain disaster would not likely be talked out of it, even if I tried, just as I would not have been talked out of my own foolish undertakings.

History has also shown me that the decisions I judged to be perilous in others’ lives have at times worked out for them. In fact, my prophetic skills in this area have not always been accurate, so who am I to try to persuade them this way or that?

So if I wish you happy birthday on Facebook, I won’t be wishing you “all good things,” because I want much more for you than that. I wish you all the depth and richness that life has to offer, including those experiences that help us to develop into our fullest capacity.

I leave you with this poem from Rilke…

 

The Man Watching 
By Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Robert Bly

I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can’t bear without a friend,
I can’t love without a sister.

The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.

What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.

When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.

Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.