Why is it difficult to change habits?
Even for health?
Especially for your health. The longer I am in the healthcare field the more I am surprised how much our patients have difficulties to adapt new behaviors in order to prevent diseases or to improve the way they feel. We call this as “practice” in physical therapy: “The patient’s compliance to home exercise program is poor”. Yet those are simple exercises that help quickly. What about the complex lifestyle changes for a more profound healing process?
Many who have developed chronic diseases, like hypertension or diabetes have been advised by the doctor to change their lifestyle. Researchers support how beneficial it can be to change diet, start exercise or be more active physically and try managing low stress levels. It all sounds easy in theory, but actually changing old habits is trickier and needs alot of patience and courage, than just having strong will-power.
There comes a day when we need to start 30 minutes of brisk walking 5 times a week and the following happens. We say: not today, but definitely tomorrow. How many times have we said tomorrow is going to be the day when I create change? Wake up early, go to sleep on time, start the day with exercise or choose a different and healthy diet. Setting goals is easy; achieving them is hard. But why is that?
This can be due to several reasons including the fact that human behaviour is complex:
- Habits are wired in the brain:
Our brain is wired to do certain actions related to the environmental cue without contemplation if that is the right choice or not. Habits are cognitively efficient, because they free mental resources and energy by skipping the decision-making process.With enough repetitions of the activity, we can form new neural pathways that support healthy habits.
- Environmental pressure:
To be a pioneer in changing lifestyle in a family or be the first one amongst friends, quitting bad habits, can be extremely challenging. The power of peer pressure and the desire of belonging is our essential human nature.
We can either choose our environment to support and inspire us in changing old ways. Or we can realize how beneficial our transition will be for our loved one’s health and we can use this as a motivation for ourselves.
- Too much, too confusing information:The internet is overflown with exercise routines, dietary recommendations and supplement advertisements, which are many times contradictory to each other or simply not beneficial and sustainable for us.
Reasonably physicians don’t have the time to explain everything in detail and follow up weekly. Therefore, the help from another healthcare provider or health coach comes valuable who can clarify what is a good fit for your life.
- Subconscious mind tricks our awareness:
While we grow up, we develop a belief system subconsciously of who we are, what is our place in this world through our own unique experience. If our belief system and the desire regarding the change are not aligned, we will hit walls.
It’s important to individually examine and understand what keeps us back subconsciously and re-write the mindset with affirmation or meditation.
- Change begins at the end of your comfort zone:Our comfort zone is very comforting. The reward system of short-term pleasures like eating a cake or staying on the couch is very tempting, as it feels very good at the moment. Long-term goals usually have rewards later on, usually not when we implement certain actions.
Yet, if we choose goals wisely, the new habits will give us back the required dopamine flush to keep us on the right track.
Current evidence supports that rewiring the brain to build new habits requires 3-6 months. But if the reward is lifelong and good health, it is worth it.
Health is a mindset; to decide every day to live up to it. To hold ourselves accountable is extremely difficult, but nobody has to go through this alone!
- Realize your desire to change.
- Set intention/Make a decision.
- Recognize the belief system that holds you back
- Make a plan
- Start with the easy action
- Reward yourself
“Eat healthily, sleep well, breathe deeply, move harmoniously.”― Jean-Pierre Barral
 Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of ‘habit-formation’ and general practice. The British journal of general practice : the journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 62(605), 664–666. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp12X659466
 Berkman E. T. (2018). The Neuroscience of Goals and Behavior Change. Consulting psychology journal, 70(1), 28–44. https://doi.org/10.1037/cpb0000094