The longer I see clients and work with them to eat healthier or lose weight or whatever nutrition or lifestyle type goal they are working toward, the more I realize it’s less about calories or grams of carbs or minutes exercised, and more about working with them to make changes in habits that last. Old habits around the way we eat and physical activity and the messages we tell ourselves about them are tough to break but not impossible.
I was recently introduced to the concept and study of neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity refers to our brains ability to change and form new pathways that support the sustainability of a new habit. Until recently, it was thought that the brain was “fixed” in its development after around our teenage years and that once we became adults the hard wired habits we have were set in and very difficult to rewire.
The emerging study of neuroplasticity shows us that it is amazingly and completely possible to change that hard wired old habit and create new healthier habits. This science is showing us that the more we repeat different, healthier ways of nourishing our body and finding ways to move, the more those new habits get imprinted into our brain’s pathways.
Have you ever noticed on your GPS in your car when you’ve traveled a certain route over and over it lays down “breadcrumbs” or dots that show you’ve driven that route over and over? Maybe it’s your route to work or to drop the kids off at school. Well, that is similar to what your brain does with repetitive behaviors or habits. It lays down pathways that make that behavior your go-to. As we engage in old not so healthy habitual behaviors, such as eating mindlessly, overeating, or eating emotionally, neural pathways become entrenched, increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.
The great news though is that ongoing studies are demonstrating that the brain is capable of forming new neural connections at any age and changing behaviors and attitudes for the better. This new research on the plasticity or changeability of the brain means we can actually retrain the brain to develop new neural pathways and therefore create new healthier habits.
This, to me, is really encouraging news. To know that just because you have had certain behaviors in the past — for most of your life even — it doesn’t mean that you have to always be that way. You have the power to change your life and your brain, one small change at a time.
So how can you rewire and retrain your brain to create healthier habits? One way is through increased mindfulness and awareness. Habits and the things we do mindlessly day in and day out, most often, are the opposite of mindfulness. We just sort of do them on autopilot without a lot of thought or consciousness. Think about the last time you brushed your teeth, were you present or was your mind everywhere but on your current task?
Becoming more aware and mindful of our thoughts and emotions and how they contribute to our habits is the first step to beginning to rewire and change an old not so healthy habit. Slowing down a bit and becoming more mindful can help us quiet our minds and hone in on our everyday thoughts and feelings and how we act on them and what the results are.
While meditation is a great way to incorporate mindfulness it can be daunting if you’ve never tried it. If you are immediately turned off by the word “meditation”, it might be helpful to think of it in terms of these synonyms: “concentration, deep thought, introspection, quiet time, reflection, or self-examination.” It’s basically giving yourself a moment to be still and in the present moment, which so often we are not. I have mentioned an app I love in the past called “Stop, Breathe, and Think.” It’s one of my favorites and can help guide you in taking that moment to just breathe.
If you still can’t wrap your mind around meditation (pun intended), a great way to start to become more mindful is just to bring awareness to the daily activities we tend to do mindlessly, like brushing our teeth, taking a shower, or driving to work. As you are brushing your teeth, for the recommended two minutes ;), try to pay attention to only that. Be prepared, your mind will wander but just notice that and try to bring it back to the present moment.
We absolutely have the power to rewire our brains and change even the worst of habits. It all starts with awareness first and slowing down long enough to notice our thoughts and feelings and what our habitual responses are to them. When we become more aware we give ourselves time to pause before reacting and choose a different, possibly healthier response, laying down new and better pathways in our brain.