Want to Break a Habit?

What did you love as a kid? Tapping into your past love might just be what your neural pathways need. 

Mike had always loved white whales. As a kid, he was obsessed with studying them.

Recently, he went on a trip of a lifetime, spending a week studying them up close.

“On the plane ride home, I noticed my nails had grown. The entire time I was living out my dream, high on the ecstasy of seeing the great whites, I never felt the need or desire to go to town on my nails.” Curious, Mike decided to put his fingers to his lips.

“In that moment, I knew I was at a crossroads. I could easily go back to biting my nails. The grooves were already in my brain, just waiting for me to make them deeper. But I caught myself. I made myself remember how amazing it was to be with the whales, and with little effort, my desire to bite my nails went down significantly.”

By identifying the positive emotion with the lack of desire to nail bite, Mike had fired up new neural pathways.

Creating New Grooves

We are the stories we tell ourselves. 

A habit is just a thought you continue to think.

By becoming the Objective Observer (as Mike did), we can create new neural pathways.

When we find ourselves craving a cigarette, we can grow still and resist the urge to go down that well-worn groove in our brain. We can “pull a Mike” and consider a time when we weren’t craving nicotine.

Avoidance Habits

Sometimes, we hide from something after an unpleasant experience. We can find ourselves avoiding:

  •  highways after experiencing a car accident on one
  • intimacy after experiencing a betrayal
  • flying after losing a family member to a plane crash

Again, the narrative we continue to tell ourselves determines our behavior, the neural pathways we’ve formed growing ever-stronger.

Or…

We can allow ourselves to feel discomfort and with self-compassion, choose to:

  • drive on a highway
  • go on a date
  • board a plane

The discomfort and anxiety felt after altering our behavior is our brain’s way of trying to protect us. 

Like a toddler, a change in routine is likely to cause a “temper tantrum”, the mind’s defiance against the new neural pathways.

But each time we perform the new behavior, the old neural pathways will start to fade. A new, healthier habit begins to form.

And just like Mike acknowledged, the temptation to return to old, familiar “grooves” will likely remain. Thank you free will.

The Objective Observer’s Power

Abraham Lincoln once said:

“People are just as happy as they make their minds up to be.”

When we grow still, we have the power to observe the monkey mind, observing it as an Objective Observer. We are no longer a victim of our mind’s thoughts, we are a nonjudgemental and compassionate observer.

Cravings and habits are the monkey mind’s drugs of choice.

By growing still and observing the hankering for example, nicotine, we can give ourselves self-compassion, acknowledging our discomfort as we choose a different neural pathway, a different choice.

Caveat

I am not a medical professional. I am an observer of life on this planet for almost half a century. And when my friend Mike shared his experience, I asked him if I could share his insight (He gave me the green light:-). 

How cool is it to know we can alter our brain’s chemistry by choosing different thoughts?

Every minute of every day, our bodies are physically reacting in response to the thoughts that run through our minds. Just thinking about something causes our brain to release neurotransmitters that allow it to “speak” with parts of itself and our nervous system.

Those neurotransmitters control all of our body’s functions — from hormones to digestion and our very emotions!

As the late and great Dr. Dyer said:

Change your thoughts, change your life.

We each have a veritable apothecary at our disposal. It starts with the very thoughts we think. 

When we change the way we look things, the things we look at change.-Dr. Dyer

*Name has been altered to respect person’s privacy.

3 thoughts on “Want to Break a Habit?

  1. As you know as an educator if placebos and nocebos can alter our reality than yes, the brain’s plasticity is only limited by our thought.

    I am reading One More by Ed Mylett this week.

    He talks about from our past is where we find the anxiety to thwart our future….but he also talks about how he imagines himself going under the Christmas Tree as five year old when he sets goals.

    The key to mastering habitual behavior is knowing what trigger points can move you in the right and wrong direction. As a struggling nail biter I can say chewing ice is one of my wrong direction trigger points. Perhaps I have a way out of this trigger through the resurgence of a powerful image/dream or memory from the past. Great thoughts, Sheri.

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    • Thanks so much for your insightful response, Jeff! Growing aware of our trigger points is key. When I find myself heading down a familiar path that I want to avoid, it often feels like that “game” kids play where you rub your belly and tap your head simultaneously. It feels uncomfortable to do something literally out of our familiar neural pathways. It’s hard! That’s where self-compassion gives us the emotional sustenance to keep at it until it gets easier over time.

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      • Yes, I agree, Sheri. Love the idea of self compassion.

        As the poem, the Desiderata advises, “beyond a wholesome discipline, Be gentle with yourself.” That type of ‘self compassion’ helps us to do just that, grow with gentle prodding.

        In that way, as the poem says, we know we have a purpose, to grow, to transcend our past limitations and negative habits….to truly findout what it means to be cheerful and to strive to be happy–to change without the weight of habits that harm ourselves.

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