Have you ever tried and tried to break a habit only to give up in a couple weeks believing you will just never be able to change? Habits, even potentially good ones, are hard to break for a reason; neurons that fire together wire together. That means that your brain forms neural pathways by releasing chemicals that active pleasure and motivational circuits. With repetition, a habit is formed carving out highways in your brain.
The habits we form, whether good or bad, meet our needs, relieve tension and anxiety, and provide payoffs. When we receive the payoff we’re motivated to repeat the behavior that provided it.
For example, after dinner you and your spouse watch a favorite TV show (cue), you sit together on the sofa and relax (routine) and have one of your favorite chocolate bars (reward). You’ve now created a feedback loop: when you think of watching TV, you think of relaxation and chocolate!
This may not be a problem unless you’re overweight, have high diabetes, or don’t mind being addicted to chocolate. But what if you have a seemingly good habit like being a perfectionist?
That was the case for my client Suzanne. She was a single working mother who was stressed out and exhausted. She was prone to making several thinking errors on a daily basis, one of which was black and white thinking.
Suzanne grew up in a home where the family theme was “always be the best.” If she didn’t’ do everything perfectly she felt like a failure. This caused her tremendous anxiety. If she messed up (cue), she would beat herself up and panic (routine behavior) then she would pop a pill to calm herself down (reward). The problem was the anxiety relief her reward provided was short lived. The next time she felt “less than” she was back to popping pills like chicklets.
To help her, I taught her the “art of noticing.” I asked her to start paying attention to her negative self-talk, her bodily cues that told her she was starting to experience anxiety, and what she believed about herself. I also taught her to notice the thinking errors she was making and gave her some relaxation techniques to calm herself and sit with the uncomfortable emotions.
By heightening her self–awareness, and by being willing to tolerate being uncomfortable, (learning the skills to manage the anxiety) Suzanne learned to get a grip on her anxiety before it overwhelmed her. Instead of responding to her anxiety cues the way she had, she interrupted the feedback loop by challenging her thoughts with positive counterstatements and deep breathing and focusing exercises. This provided a lasting reward of calmness.
Because Suzanne didn’t want to pass on her anxious tendencies and her perfectionist ways onto her kids, she was super motivated to change.
Breaking habits requires intentional deliberate practice to change the neural networks in our brain. The good news is it can be done because of the brain’s neuro-placticity, a fancy word that tells us we can literally change the architecture of our brain through deliberate focused attention. Here are some tips on how to begin the rewiring process:
Practice self -awareness
You can’t change what you don’t notice, so start paying attention to what you’re paying attention to on a moment -by -moment basis. Listen to what you tell yourself. Is your self-talk mostly negative and condemning? If so start catching yourself in the act and make a conscious decision to STOP.
For folks that tend to see the glass half empty, gratitude is a great habit to cultivate. I tell my clients to write down at least two things each day they can be grateful for. Over time it begins to change your perspective in amazing ways.
Breaking habits does require strong motivation on the front end. You have to have something that motivates you to change. For Suzanne it was seeing her bad habits being reflected in her children. If you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, if you’re weary of feeling miserable about yourself, that might be enough. Only you can decide, but once you have you must practice positive thinking in order to re-wire the neuro-networks in your brain.
Practice being intentional
Over the last couple of decades there has been oceans of research about the neuroplasticity of the brain. That’s a fancy way of saying that the brain can reorganize itself by creating new neural pathways to adapt, as it needs. When learning a new task, figuring out a problem, or trying to overcome an obstacle, you have to focus. The more you focus and practice something the better you get at it the new skill that you’re trying to learn, or the problem you’re trying to solve. This action of concentrated practice and repetition forms new neural connections in the brain as synapses that don’t usually fire together, now do. This is what helps us sharpen the new skill.
If you’re serious about changing your thought life, if you’re tired of being stuck in the same old negative self -defeating thinking patterns, and if you’re willing to WORK at this, you really can live a healthier more stress free life!
Check out my new book, available for pre-order on Amazon, Think This Not That:How to Eliminate Toxic Thinking and Rewire Your Brain