Change: A Primer

It’s difficult to break old habits—but not impossible.

Illustration by John S. DykesIf you’re like 45 percent of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution, it’s a good bet that your plans now seem as tiresome as an old party hat. That’s because, depending on what survey you listen to, only 8 percent succeed in sticking to their goals and making it part of their everyday routines. No wonder New Year’s resolutions have become the butt of jokes. (Say, did you hear about the woman who couldn’t change? It seems her resolution went in one year and out the other.)


Fortunately, science has intervened to help us understand why it’s so difficult to break old habits and adopt healthy behaviors. Thanks largely to developments in brain-imaging techniques, researchers have discovered how habits or routines actually become embedded in a region of our brains called the basal ganglia.

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Scientists have long been aware that this region is critical to habit change, addiction and procedural learning. It’s also where Parkinson’s disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder and other neuropsychiatric disorders occur.

But only in recent years have scientists gained insight into how the brain processes familiar routines versus unfamiliar ones—especially in the way new synaptic connections occur whenever we’re learning something new. The most important discovery came at MIT’s McGovern Institute, where researchers linked the basal ganglia to creativity and innovation. These studies show that, when we break from our comfort zone and consciously try to develop new habits, we create new synaptic pathways—even new brain cells—that allow us to bypass procedural ruts and produce firing patterns that are the hallmarks of creative, innovative thinking.

But before you draw up another life plan in celebration of your new goals, there are other things to consider. Those new neural activity patterns aren’t embedded overnight. The brain needs time to sort through and organize its new input, ultimately creating a pathway if the pattern is repeated frequently enough. But more often than not, the brain reverts back to its old firing patterns.

In fact, neuroscientists now know that old pathways can be reactivated when something sparks the old habit again. Hence, an ex-smoker might resume his old ways simply by continuing an associative behavior like drinking. The process of training the brain to accept new behaviors is one reason experts recommend finding support and trying methods that have worked in the past.

Gael Chiarella Alba, a yoga instructor turned spiritual life coach, won’t consider any change without daily reflection to help stay the course. Alba, who lives in Phoenixville on the aptly named Onward Avenue, concedes that she’s a case study for change. She moved from Long Island, N.Y., to be closer to her aging parents in Devon. She formed new social networks, dated and married. Recently she started a new business, Yokibics Productions. “What generally happens is that you are too ambitious, and you need to tailor your goals,” she says.

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Another aspect of change to consider: You’re not merely coming up with a goal (I will change jobs, I’ll get out of debt, I will enjoy life more), it takes real work—even some visualization of the future—to rewire your circuitry. This is where other parts of your brain come into play.

Every decision you make involves the insula (emotions) and its counterpart, the cortex (rational thought). The limbic system—via the insula—sends the body into “fight or flight” mode, while the neocortex system tends to control or override the emotional brain’s need for pleasure and safety. How these two areas interact is one reason why behavior psychologists and life coaches make the recommendations they do. Most agree that we often sabotage our best intentions by making it difficult for our emotional brain to cooperate.

M.J. Ryan, a best-selling San Francisco-based author and contributing editor to Health and Good Housekeeping magazines, writes extensively about the mind-body connection—especially the way in which the emotional brain can determine a successful outcome for long-term change. She addresses the importance of what she calls the “stretch zone”—a place between a stressed-out state of being and the “comfort zone.”

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“Unless we continue to learn new things, which challenges our brains to create new pathways, they literally begin to atrophy,” writes Ryan, who’s appeared on the Today Show, CNN and hundreds of radio programs.

In the stretch zone, says Ryan, the new activity or behavior you’re trying to adopt should feel awkward or unfamiliar. “Awkwardness is a sign that we’re learning,” she adds. “The problem is that so many of us have forgotten what it’s like to learn something new. We think everything is going to be easy and fabulous. We don’t realize that we have to go through the awkward stage to really change—that it occurs in nearly everything, from ‘What do I do with my hands when I’m not smoking?’ to ‘What will I say if I’m not screaming at my kids?’”

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Ryan’s book points to the various transitions that occur once you “get your emotions on your side.” She suggests that the thinking brain can be tricked into taking a backseat by avoiding the “whys” and “shoulds” (e.g., “I should go to the gym”), and using words that engage our feelings (“It’s going to feel fabulous to be thinner”).

Not surprisingly, this is exactly how life coaches work. Jeff Kaplan, a local author and psychologist who helped establish the Malvern-based wellness company Mind Body Spirit Inc., describes life coaching as a process by which you replace the “whys” of traditional therapy with “hows” and “whats”—words that anticipate action.

Coupled with such insight techniques as mindfulness meditation, a coach’s choice of words serves to keep the client in the present tense. (Remember the MIT study where participants consciously thought about change?)

“Living in the here and now is the only way to avoid negative thoughts that act like static in our minds,” Kaplan says. “Mindfulness meditation is really about being mindful of the moment. It’s about not being distracted or worrying about what’s going to happen. If you can succeed in being consciously aware, you can do anything.”

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Change in 5 Easy Steps

1. Look to the past. Research has shown that successful change is the result of following one’s own formulae. So figure out what has worked for you in the past, and see if you can adapt any steps for your new project.

2. Put it in writing. The paradox of trying something new is that we often forget we’re in the driver’s seat. It’s up to us to get where we’re going. A contract with yourself—one that includes measurable goals—is a great way to get specific.

3. Find support. It can come in the form of a friend, a family member or even a life coach. Think of them as riding in the passenger’s seat—your guide when you stray off course.

4. Relax. To reach a goal, a certain visualization—or “seeing”—should take place. To avoid over-thinking the task at hand, however, you must learn to relax. Keep a journal; read inspiring books; try yoga or mindfulness meditation—whatever works.

5. Review, review, review. M.J. Ryan, author of the 2006 book This Year I Will…, includes the lack of a tracking and reminder system among her “Top 10 Resolution Pitfalls.” Tracking is necessary, she writes, because you might not “experience enough progress or underestimate how far you’ve come.” Discouraged, you quit.

7 Truths about Change

1. It comes only to those who desire it. Make a change you truly want.
2. It has a price. But if you worry about the proverbial road not taken, you risk limiting your choices to what is practical or reasonable.
3. It takes work. Change is inherently mind- stretching and creative.
4. It’s awkward and ambivalent. Our body hasn’t learned the steps, and our brain and emotions aren’t sure what to do either.
5. It’s rewarding. Allow yourself to think about all the new, fun and creative possibilities.
6. It takes time. Think baby steps, not giant leaps of faith.
7. It’s good. You’re just not creating a new you, you’re improving your brain.

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