Welcome to my May newsletter. I hope it finds all of you doing well and enjoying this change of season whether it be Spring up here or Autumn in the Southern Hemisphere.
I’ve written a rather long article this month so health tips will be very brief. Please enjoy —
Making and Breaking Habits
I tell my clients over and over again, you can make a good habit the same way you make a bad habit; and that statement is true. However, this is a far more complicated issue than that simple statement would imply.
The bottom line is that most of us do not naturally default to a healthy habit. It takes effort, planning and willpower. Creating new, healthier habits requires major effort and breaking old habits is even harder. Plus if you add in the addition of depression or anxiety, it can seem overwhelming.
Research, however into how habits are formed gives us clues as to how we can use and control our automatic behavior to nurture healthy habits and create a better life.
First, and perhaps more important, you have to believe. We cling to unhealthy and even dangerous behaviors like smoking, watching endless TV, over eating and eating junk food, gambling, drinking to excess or drug use because we are hot wired to seek pleasure and immediate gratification. All of these activities tend to deliver an immediate, powerful burst of happy neurotransmitters to our brain.
Resisting that immediate pleasure or doing a task that does not deliver an immediate reward requires effort and willpower. Research has shown that these qualities vary widely from person to person and even in an individual during the course of a single day. So the question becomes, how do we strengthen our willpower?
Stanford University psychologists Carol Dweck and Greg Walton have discovered that willpower can be boosted using the power of attitude. They discovered that people who believe willpower is a self-renewing ability actually performed better during a series of cognitive tests given to participants than those who were convinced they only had limited willpower.
So, it does turn out that what practitioners (including myself) have been saying about affirmations is true. Such affirmations as, “exercise or strenuous work can be energizing” have the ability to help push us to dig deeper within ourselves when fatigue starts to set in.
Or the affirmation that eating healthier will make you feel better can help give you that little push you need to modify unhealthy eating habit. Or, to take it a step further, the affirmation or reminder that if you don’t get drunk at night you will wake up feeling better can help you cut back or perhaps ultimately even quit drinking.
But, there’s more. Charles Duhigg in his book "The Power of Habit" details the neurological structure of forming habits and how to use what he refers to as the “habit loop” to make changes. With every habit we form whether good or bad, we cycle through three stages in forming that habit.
- The first stage is a “cue” trigger.
This trigger stimulates the neurotransmitter dopamine (an opiate) into the brain’s pleasure center. This surge of dopamine into the pleasure center pushes us to act on a desire. Triggers are can be associated with a place, time of day, group of people, an emotional state or a particular action.
As an example, I have two friends with this same trigger. When the phone rings, they immediately want a cigarette. That’s because the habit was formed by lighting up a cigarette whenever a friend called. Now, the phone ringing is a “cue” trigger. Each time the phone rings, the brain sends out a burst of dopamine that makes them anticipate the pleasure of social contact.
I’ve had several clients with the cue trigger being a time of day. In particular, late night can trigger this burst of dopamine with the act of snacking on unhealthy foods; or even if it isn’t unhealthy food, just over eating late at night which makes dieting even harder than it already is.
Truth is, it is really, really hard to erase a specific dopamine-opioid circuit once it is firmly establish in your subconscious. We do, however, have the ability to “overwrite” this circuit by substituting a different routine in the middle of the specific loop you are dealing with. It requires paying attention to your patterns.
Paying attention to your patterns and what you are doing is the underlying principal behind Mindful Thinking. A tremendously powerful healing modality which I’ve written numerous articles about. The underlying very basic principle of Mindful Thinking is very simply thinking, really thinking about what you are doing while you are doing it. Focusing on the activity you are doing rather than thinking about the dozen other things that may be crossing your mind.
So, changing a habit loop requires you to pay attention to your patterns and also requires you to keep an open mind and have a willingness to experiment a bit. It’s hard, but do not be impatient with the process. It can take time to fully understand the motivation behind your actions, behaviors and habits.
You may think that flaking in front of the TV after dinner is
motivated by a desire to stay on top of the latest news. But if you switch to the radio or newspaper instead, you may find that it isn’t satisfying you and you just want to go back to the TV. That means there is something else behind the desire to flake in front of the TV.
It isn’t as simple as staying on top of the latest news. It is important to understand truly what is behind your habit loop. Sometimes we have to experiment a bit to discover what is driving a particular behavior. Is it fear, boredom, loneliness or something else?
Substituting a different response can help you identify what reward your brain is really craving. Let’s deal with a habit/addiction here. Perhaps drinking too much is a stress response. If you do a session of yoga or energetic exercise, it can restore your balance and allow you to cut back on drinking and use your “drinking” time much more productively. Or maybe drinking is a way of relieving loneliness and calling a friend can provide the same reward and is much healthier.
In addition, in order to replace a deeply ingrained habit, you need to give yourself some space. Steph Habif, PhD, a San Francisco based behavioral scientist who helps people design healthier lifestyles calls this “inserting time and space” into the habit loop.
Basically this means setting up an obstacle for you to stop or delay the behavior. Like not keeping liquor readily available in the house, forcing you to make a trip out to get it. Or keeping the remote in the freezer as an obstacle to immediately turning on the TV. Having to make a trip out of the house or go to the freezer gives you time to reconsider what you are planning to do, call a friend, a sponsor, whoever you need for emotional support. The actual physical act of getting in your car or holding a really cold remote provides a tactile reminder of your intention.
Once you have identified a cue and reward, you need to practice doing something else every time your habit gets triggered. It can be as simple as taking a couple of deep breaths or if drinking, sip a glass of water between glasses of wine or beer. The routine of drinking is the same but you’ve changed the content of the liquid and inserted the space and time referred to above. It helps you gain control over the habit or addiction.
Finally, you can use this habit loop to actually help you establish new routines. This can be accomplished with small changes plus giving yourself an immediate reward.
Some examples. Want to eat healthier? Start by adding one vegetable at the start of every dinner, then anchor that small action with something you already do and enjoy such as eating your favorite food, just a slightly smaller portion and then celebrate it!
Do a happy dance; eat a piece (one piece) of chocolate after dinner. Do the same thing if you are trying to exercise regularly, one small piece of chocolate (or frozen yogurt or whatever you enjoy, just a small portion) every time you come home from the gym or do a yoga session or run or swim or whatever it is you’ve chosen to do to live a healthier life.
If you learn to associate your new healthier habit with something you love, it will work in your favor and help you succeed with breaking a bad habit and making a good habit.
Linda Simmon C.Ht.
Things You Must Know About Heart Attacks
By Mehmet C. Oz, MD, and Michael F. Roizen, MD
For better or for worse, things rarely happen in real life the way they do in Hollywood (sorry, Pretty Woman isn't real). Heart attacks are no exception. Learning about them may save your life:
Heart-healthy habits for women
You might not feel any chest pain. The heart itself doesn't have pain receptors. But nerves coming from the heart may trigger nerves in, say, your chest or arm. Or not. Instead, you may notice unusual or extreme fatigue; atypical or prolonged disturbances in your sleep patterns; shortness of breath; indigestion; or pressure, tightness, aching, or burning in your upper back, neck, shoulders, arms, or even in your jaw or throat.
Cholesterol doesn't tell you much. Just one cholesterol number -- total cholesterol -- doesn't tell you everything. Better to know how much is
artery-clogging lousy LDL (should be less than 100) and how much healthy HDL you have (should be higher than 50).
Cholesterol isn't the only number to watch. High blood pressure is a huge heart attack risk factor and is even more powerful than LDL. Your blood pressure should be 115/76 or lower.
Women are as vulnerable as men. The risk of dying from heart disease isn't just a guy thing.
What's on your mind really matters. Anxiety is hard on your heart. So hard, in fact, that highly anxious people with heart disease are TWICE as likely to suffer a heart attack or die compared with their more mellow-minded peers.