Why is behaviour change so difficult?
an attempt to understand + 3 daily practices to build brain resilience & focus
Did you know that as per statistics, about 50% of people who start a workout program quit exercising within the first 6 months? While it's universally known that exercise is good for us, it's still a huge challenge for fitness professionals like me to keep clients consistent on the path.
Exercise is just one of the many good things that people are not getting enough of.
Pause to reflect on your own life - are there things that you know you should be doing consistently to improve your life but for some reason or the other are stumbling and losing focus?
You are definitely not alone.
Take a moment to listen to this TED talk by Dr Elissa Epel:
Clearly, as humans we are way too complex. There is a lot going on inside of us that's influencing the way we behave & make choices - our genetic predisposition, environmental influences, past conditioning, life experiences, beliefs, values, attitudes, all of it interfere with our well intentioned plans.
So a good goal for us, should be to take the time to understand ourselves better - how our mind works, how our brain works, what our life has been about and where we need to do the work, to be able to live a more fulfilling life.
In this post, I will make an attempt to touch upon the workings of our brain and offer you some daily practices to help you make it function in your favor.
Human Brain & neuroplasticity:
Humans are limited in their ability to regenerate nerve cells. However, science has proven that the brain has the ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. This attribute is referred to as 'neuroplasticity'.
By repeating certain behaviours we can rewire the brain to respond in a manner that enhances our well-being.
I have tried this with the gratitude journaling practice and can vouch for its effectiveness in training the brain to look at the bright side.
I would recommend you do your own experiment. Pick up a habit that you seem to indulge in, that doesn't serve you. Break it with a new response that you can consistently practice. Stick for a LONG time before you draw any conclusion.
It took me a year of regular gratitude journaling to finally start perceiving things differently. And this is the reason I recommend you stay consistent with your practice for a really long time.
A little more on the ‘pre-frontal cortex’ part of the brain:
Listening to Dr Ellisa Epel's Ted talk made me want to research more on the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that helps make decisions, predict consequences, and play a critical role in impulse control. In my search, I came across a research paper. Here’s an extract from it that you will find interesting:
“The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that evolved most recently. It is the area immediately behind the forehead that serves as the control center that mediates our highest cognitive abilities—among them concentration, planning, decision making, insight, judgment and the ability to retrieve memories and it can be exquisitely sensitive to even temporary everyday anxieties and worries.
When things are going well, the prefrontal cortex acts as a control center that keeps our baser emotions and impulses in check. The new research demonstrates that acute, uncontrollable stress sets off a series of chemical events that weaken the influence of the prefrontal cortex while strengthening the dominance of older parts of the brain. In essence, it transfers high-level control over thought and emotion from the prefrontal cortex to the hypothalamus and other earlier evolved structures. As the older parts take over, we may find ourselves either consumed by paralyzing anxiety or else subject to impulses that we usually manage to keep in check: indulgence in excesses of food, drink, drugs or a spending spree at a local speciality store. Quite simply, we lose it.” (Sharing the full paper in the resources section, at the end of this article)
So clearly, better stress management can help us keep the pre-frontal cortex functioning better, allowing us to make better decisions for our well-being.
Three daily practices to build resilience & focus:
A. Practice the pause:
Pause frequently, throughout the day. Don't wait for end of week, month, year or even end of day for reflection. Take frequent breaks to reflect on your actions and how they served you. You can choose to set a reminder for this kind of quick check-in.
You might have had a good meal that nourished you (positive action), or you might have spent too long scrolling the internet or procrastinated an important task (action that perhaps didn't serve you). Acknowledge both. Taking mental note will serve as an effective reminder the next time you indulge in the same behavior.
Also asking yourself why you seem to repeatedly indulge in behaviors that don't serve you, might open up something about yourself that’s remained unconscious. This can pave way for better self understanding, which in turn can enable you to make a change from a place of self knowledge and awareness.
B. Make your breath your ally:
Every time you feel a trigger coming, remind yourself to breathe. Train yourself to pause & take a few breaths before responding to the trigger. Eventually, pausing to breathe will become your auto-pilot response to triggers.
I have been practicing this long enough now. And I find that, with this I am able to manage my flight, fight responses better. Making breath my ally has helped me find courage to take action, have difficult conversations and stay calm around trying personalities.
Give it a try.
C. More action. Less overthinking.
You know what needs to be done. Just do it. Especially the most difficult task on your checklist. The one you keep pushing everyday because it makes you uncomfortable. Do this consistently to build resilience.
Put these 3 into practice, starting today. Do feel free to write back on your journey with the practices. I would be happy to hear from you.
Resources & recommendations:
To Read :
1. The Telomere Effect by Elizabeth Blackburn, Ph.D & Elissa Epel, Ph.D
2. Body keeps the score by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D.
3. Research paper :
Although this can feel more of a spiritual talk, I felt the practice of remaining conscious can help increase awareness of how we create our own reality.