Challenging old habits: New Year’s resolutions
At the start of a new year people tend to make resolutions. They reflect on their behaviour of the past year and the changes they want to make in the next year, the mistakes they have made, the goals they haven’t achieved, the promises they didn’t keep. It seems a good moment for reflection, the start of a new calendar year which provides us a lot of time to work on things, improve ourselves or make things happen.
The most common resolutions people make are based on either getting rid of unwanted behaviour (quit smoking, less eating, quit fighting) or adding more desired behaviour to their life (like more exercise, more social contact, more time with the family). These resolutions are usually based on dissatisfaction with our behaviour or feelings of lack of control in certain areas of our life. But how do actually these bad habits enter our lives? Why is it so hard to get rid of them?
Here some words of advice:-
- Just some short education about how we learn things in general: the most known way of learning in a psychological sense is ‘operant conditioning’. This means we have a certain trigger (stimulant) and learn to respond to this in a certain way (response) which can provide us comfort (reward) or discomfort (punishment). When the received reward is positive we are likely to repeat that type of behaviour. The type of reward could be categorised and linked to the 6 basic human needs defined by Tony Robbins (growth, variety, love/connection, contribution, significance, certainty).
- As humans we are sensitive to those actions that can fulfil those basic needs. Let me explain this with an example: a child makes a drawing and shows this to mother, who responds with a happy smile, praise and a hug. The child registers that making a drawing will provide mother to feel love and connection for the child which makes the child to contribute to the happiness of mother and to grow. Another example: smoking won’t just provide you that physical satisfaction of the nicotine (certainty), it might also provide you the option to talk to a colleague (connection) and you might feel more refreshed and energised after the short break in attention span so you can devote yourself to that difficult task and achieve a result in that area (significance).
- The other thing to bear in mind is that behaviour can cause changes in the structures of our brain. We are driven by the effects of neurotransmitters (dopamine/ adrenaline) that are partly regulated by the control and pleasure centres in our brain. These centres can be affected by addiction and repeated behaviour. This could also provide a reason why we keep doing what we don’t want to do but seems unable to stop doing. Good news is that these effects in the regions of the brain are reversible, so after abstaining from our addictions those neurotransmitter levels and size of these brain centres will return back to normal.
- To increase the chances of success of our attempts to withdraw from our addictive or undesired behaviours we need to consider some important factors. Motivation is the most important one. Based on an Acceptance and Commitment Therapy approach we should first determine our values: what kind of person would we like to be? Which aspects in life are important, that can provide us happiness and fulfilment? Based on these values, we can determine goals and we can set committed action that could lead us closer to those goals. This could also help us to be strong when tempted with distractions or opposite behaviours.
- Let me explain with this example: if one of your values in life is health/a healthy lifestyle (because you want to enjoy your kids as long as possible or set a good example for them) you might feel bad about the actions that are discordant with this value like an unhealthy food pattern or a non-active exercise pattern. Once you have become aware of this connection with your values you might feel stronger to replace your unhealthy patterns by healthy ones. Also reminding yourself of these values and your motivation to (make an effort to) change when you are tempted to the opposite behaviour (you’re tired and have no energy to cook, you could go for fast food) can make a difference and will put you on to the desired track again (make an easy salad, for example).
- A term I learned recently in correlation to food/sex addiction is ‘urge surfing’, which I thought could also be very helpful to get rid of your undesired habits. Urge surfing refers to the ability to sit through the urge feelings with mindfulness and attention without giving in to the object of the urge. This is based on the concept that an urge usually doesn’t last longer than a couple of minutes. Mindfulness and acceptance are again very important to learn this skill.
Finally I would like to emphasise one more thing in addressing addictions and undesired behaviours. This is the impact of our thoughts and beliefs about ourselves, others and the world that can interfere with our attempts to break our cycle of routines. The mind can be quite judgemental or cruel towards us, it can provide us –unwillingly- all kinds of negative comments. The more we are aware of these negative mind stories, the more we can develop the power to distance ourselves from them and pay attention to the present moment instead of our judgemental mind. Again this might take a bit of practice to become aware of our blind spots.
As you can read there are some explanations of how our bad habits can develop and why we can be kept imprisoned by them. Awareness, mindfulness, beliefs and physical changes are all aspects of overcoming these behaviours.
If you have any undesired behaviours or New Year’s resolutions that you would like to action now, I hope this blog has provided you valuable information in where to start. If you have tried this or you would like to have some support in any of these processes, feel free to contact our practice staff to discover how we can offer you assistance. Don’t wait till the perfect moment, start now and believe in your ability to change!
Sex Therapy at Attuned Psychology is an important service offered by our practice. For more information and to make enquiries, visit our Sex Therapy Adelaide page.
Subscribe to our newsletter Attuned Life
Would you be interested in receiving our occasional newsletter, event information and other useful tips via e-mail?