Breaking Bad Habits-Easier than You Thought
By Charles F. Glassman, MD – CoachMD –
One of life’s most frustrating features is habits. Now I’m not talking about the good habits.
Those are very easily broken. It’s the bad ones. Why is it that we have so much trouble breaking bad habits? Things that we know in our core are bad for us, yet we keep doing them, day in and day out.
You see, when I first started writing my patients weekly emails some four years ago, this question of habits was my greatest challenge. After all, I saw this as the biggest obstacle in achieving total health-in mind, body, and soul. I had to look first into myself to see what it was that kept me returning to habitual patterns of thought and behavior. For me, it was not the obvious things as, for example food, or cigarettes, or procrastination. It was more a habit of looking into the past and drifting into negative scenarios about the future.
The Pesky Primitive, Automatic Brain,Again
So, I ask, why does my brain work this way and why does yours work to keep you stuck in a place from where you would like to leave? I knew that my thoughts were not serving me well and creating unnecessary worry.
My writing brought me back to meditation, a practice that I started while in residency, revisited on and off over the years, but now do regularly. During meditation, I was guided to an understanding of the difference between our brain and mind. The former is the portion of gray matter dedicated to preserve our ability to procreate. In order to do that it must be on alert 24/7 for any evidence of danger, threat, or vulnerability. Even the mere possibility, as unlikely or improbable as it may be, that signals danger will be enough to flip the switch. Once on, this brain will cause you to fight or flee the possible danger. It is the same brain, little changed, as possessed by our prehistoric ancestors. It is primitive, binary (only on or off), and highly powerful.
The problem is that it does not think or reason-just reacts. How does this brain know danger? It compiles data throughout our lives and stores it so that it can reference experience (both internal and external) as being threatening. There is no greater time of data storage than from birth to adolescence and during this period our brain stores a lot of information of what we will view as familiar and comfortable, thus safe, as adults.
The Great Unknown
Generally, habits are those things with which we become comfortable. They are familiar to us. Even if they are not good for us, they are familiar and comfortable. We know what to expect. A cigarette, for instance, is a reliable companion for the smoker-always there in times of need, always there when a deep breath is needed.
But the habit, as self-sabotaging as it may be, is well known. One of the greatest triggers of our primitive brain (and I believe this is a genetic imprint that our brain possesses at birth) is the unknown. No matter how bad is your present situation or habit, the uncharted waters of the unknown, to the primitive brain, is much more dangerous. As we have seen above, danger causes us to fight or flee. Breaking bad habits signal danger of moving into unknown, unfamiliar territory. Therefore, no matter how hard you try your primitive brain automatically and instantaneously brings you back to “safety”.
What to Do?
Understand that if you are struggling with habits that you just can’t seem to break, whether they be patterns of behavior or thoughts, it always means that breaking the habit signals danger to your brain. The truth is, though, that if you began living opposite of what you are doing now, your brain will view the bad habit as dangerous.
Here’s a simple exercise that you can do every day and it only takes a few seconds. When you awaken from sleep, do not get right out of bed. Lay in bed for a minute or two with your eyes closed. Only focus on one behavior or thought pattern that you would like to change. Begin visualizing yourself living as though you do not have this habit. At first, you will develop slight anxiety/nervousness. This is because your automatic brain reacts to thoughts just as actual physical danger with the same fight or flight discharge.
As you make it your habit to visualize yourself not living with an undesirable habit, and you do this every day, your automatic brain will begin helping you fight or flee the bad habit, as it becomes more unfamiliar, thus dangerous.
As we go through life, much of what we think and do seems out of our control. When we begin to realize that we actually possess the ability to control the automatic inclinations of our primitive brain, it opens up an entire new world, one that is innately familiar, very safe and secure, and nourishing to our mind, body, and soul.
He is the author of the critically acclaimed book Brain Drain, which helps explain and fix self-sabotage. It is the winner of the 2011 Independent Publisher's Award and 2011 Eric Hoffer Award as the best Self-Help and Health book, 2010 Pinnacle Book Award for best Self-Help Book, and 2009 LA Book Festival Best Spirituality Book.
To new subscribers on his website, he is now offering his free, new EBook, Destiny Diet. Weekly, Dr. Glassman hosts Medicine on the Cutting Edge, which gives a voice to pioneers in medical research and development. Dr. Glassman lives with his family in Rockland County, NY.
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