by Dr. Hepsharat Amadi
It’s traditional for many people to make New Year’s resolutions to improve their lives. Even though New Year’s Day is just another day, and the “new year” can start on any day that we choose, there is still a symbolic feeling among many people that January 1st marks the start of a new year and thus a good time to institute a desired change. This collective groundswell of desire for constructive change peaks around this time and thus can be used as psychological leverage in that each of us influences and is influenced by the thoughts of those around us.
Just as in December, with lots of people focusing on having fun and indulging in holiday treats, in January the focus tends to shift to improving one’s life and health.
However, many people struggle with turning their dreams and desires into reality. Changing behavior is very difficult, which is why some people die rather than do what is necessary to save themselves, but it can be done. Using strategies to help overcome inertia is more likely to be successful than just “trying” and hoping for the best.
Why is changing our patterns so difficult? The Power of Habit, by Charles Duhigg, explains the research that has been done to show just how influenced our lives are by our habits. It is fascinating because even though most people think of themselves as flexible, logical beings who decide what they are going to do based on what would be the best actions to achieve such desires, the reality is that the vast majority of what we do, whether constructive or destructive, is based on sheer habit.
Even though we might consciously want to change, oftentimes the inertia of our habits will pull us back into behavior patterns that we no longer desire unless we oppose those tendencies with deliberate strategies designed to counteract them.
Why is this? The remarkable movie What the Bleep Do We Know? illustrates how we are “hard wired” for habit, whether good or bad. Our nervous system has “plasticity” in that it can change slowly over time based on how we use it. Brain cells, called neurons, are connected to many other neurons in their vicinity. When these neurons fire in a certain sequence over and over again, they actually grow more connections between the nerve cells that most commonly fire in sequence. Thus, it becomes easier and easier, over time, for them to fire in that particular sequence as opposed to other possible ones. This is analogous to making a path through a thickly wooded area. When one first starts, one has to push aside the foliage to make a thin path. But as one keeps going down the same path over and over, eventually the path becomes deeper and wider until it becomes much easier to go down that same path than to forge a new one.
This is why, when learning new behaviors, like tying one’s shoes, learning to play the piano or driving a car, at first one has to pay conscious attention to all the little details of one’s actions in order to make them come out perfectly. Later on, once these things have been done so frequently as to become ingrained, hardly any conscious attention is needed to achieve them. Who among us has not been so preoccupied with other things at some point in time that we missed our exit on the road? We could still keep driving while thinking of other things because it has become an unconscious habit that our conscious mind does not need to pay attention to in order to achieve.
What strategies will more likely turn your New Year’s resolutions into reality?
1. Write them down. Author Brian Tracy, Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life, cites a study wherein college graduates who actually wrote down their goals in life were 10 times more likely to achieve them.
2. Enlist the help of family and friends. We are all influenced by the behavior of those around us; if we are trying to avoid eating certain foods, drinking alcoholic beverages or smoking, for example, we would do well to ask our family and friends to support us by not having those things in the house or engaging in those activities while around us. Along this same vein, we may need to minimize contact or avoid entirely those people who encourage us (whether consciously or unconsciously) to indulge in behaviors we know are hurtful.
3. Keep a journal. It’s easy to forget what one does over the long term, but this becomes much easier once we write it down. By writing down when we fall prey to our old behaviors and under what circumstances, and also when we have passed a day without doing these, we can more easily understand the connections between circumstances and behavioral outcomes so that we can engineer the circumstances to more likely result in the behaviors we desire.
4. Meditate in the morning and evening. It can be for a short time or a longer time but the main thing is to do it. Be already grateful for the changes we have made in our life and for the results of those changes. Think of it as a Done Deal and rejoice in it! Have faith and know that although it is challenging, we CAN do it if we are really committed.
5. Go for a walk or do some other form of exercise such as yoga. Often, moving and oxygenating the body gets our brains going, generates endorphins and lifts our mood. It is often the threat of anxiety or depression that reinforces our negative health habits to begin with, so without these bad moods to oppress us, the likelihood of being susceptible to bad habits is much less.
6. Take B vitamins and vitamin C. In her fascinating book, The Hidden Addiction and How to Get Free, author Janice K. Phelps, MD shares that many people prone to all sorts of addictions—whether substance or behavioral—tended to recover quicker and stay in recovery when they addressed their anxiety/depression with meds/herbs/supplements AND took higher doses of B and C vitamins than found in multivitamins alone.
7. Take probiotics. One of my patients told me that when she began taking probiotics, her craving for sugar declined. Other nutrients that can reduce cravings for sugar are chromium picolinate, zinc, gymnema sylvestre, regular protein intake throughout the day and dietary fiber. If you need help knowing what you need, see a nutritionist or a functional medicine doctor.
8. Have a colonic, or two or three. Doing this is like pressing the “reset” button. By ridding your body and liver of toxins, it actually makes you less likely to crave things that are bad for you. A toxic liver makes you want to ingest toxic things, and a healthy liver makes you want to eat and drink healthy. And the best way to the liver is through the colon!
Lastly, remember this: Although the fear of feeling deprived is what stops many people from getting started on the worthy endeavor of taking control of one’s life and one’s habits, the feeling of deprivation is only temporary. In time, one’s tastes change so that unhealthy things that were once appealing are no longer, and healthy things that once seemed undesirable are now much more attractive and enjoyable. The secret is to be patient enough to allow for this natural physiological change to occur. Give yourself at least 40 days to change a habit. For some people, it may take a longer or shorter time, but this is an average.
If in the beginning, you fall off the wagon, forgive yourself, look for what tempted you in those circumstances, and make adjustments in daily routines to help prevent this in the future—then get right back on it!
Someone said, “Bad habits are easy to form but hard to live with. Good habits are hard to form but easy to live with.” You and you alone are responsible for your health (if you’re an adult) and you will reap what you sow, so have courage, have faith and begin making better choices and forming better habits.