I was recently pruning a large dead leaf from my oldest houseplant, that has somehow managed to survive my inconsistent care for more than eight years. In fact, I am amazed when I take the time to admire its vibrancy and health. As I gently tried to remove the dead appendage, I realized it took more effort than I expected, and was more inclined to stay attached to its host than it was to let go. I believe this could be a good metaphor to describe the difficulty we have when trying to make a healthy change in our lives. Just as my fiddle-leaf fig tree was still attached to a part of itself that was unfruitful, we tend to have attachments to our “dead” habits that make it a challenge to sustain healthy change.
As people, we automatically gravitate towards behaviors that are comforting. Once that comfort is enjoyed, a memory of that experience is recorded in our brains and sets up a cycle of “reminders” that are fed back to us. These “comfort reminders” promote a return to that same behavior, thereby establishing a habit or a “hardwire” in our system. The longer and more often those reminders are given place and practice, the stronger the habit becomes. Further, we become less and less aware of any choice in that behavior. In a way, we gradually become mindless reactors allowing the autopilot of our minds to direct our behaviors towards comfort. This automatic lifestyle is one of our biggest challenges for making a healthy lifestyle change. The season for “detaching” a habit is uncomfortable to us, as we temporarily go against our natural design to seek comfort and avoid discomfort. I believe this explains why we so often give up the struggle for healthy change, falling back into the familiar and comfortable place of old habit and routine.
The first step in dealing with this challenge is by becoming more aware of our own habits. We can slow down enough to step back and observe our automatic behaviors, so that we will have a clearer picture for making decisions about healthy change. Next, we begin to travel along a path that flows through a cycle of helpful strategies for sustaining change. We begin by finding motivation and inspiration for ourselves. Maybe for you that includes reading related materials, journaling, visits in nature, or through relationships. The amazing thing about inspiration, is that there are endless sources all around us. As we begin to appreciate them, they are more easily seen and enjoyed! Second on our cycle is setting realistic goals for our healthy change. If we don’t know where we are headed, its hard to get there! This practice of goal setting can be revisited at any time, to allow for adjustments and resetting as we travel our journey in ongoing change. Third, we put feet to those goals, by setting the plan for reaching them. The great thing about a plan is that you can design it to accommodate your own unique personality and situation. The more you know yourself the more realistic your plan will be. By integrating healthy and comforting habits into our plan, our minds and bodies will accept our change more easily. Finally, the last ingredient in the ongoing cycle is the development and dependence on a support team. As much as we all tend to try and “go it alone”, it is not our nature to live in isolation. The support of family, close friends, community groups, health care members and wellness resources are available to us all.
This helpful cycle will grow with us through our own seasons of life. As we encounter changes in and around us, we will be best served to continue observing our automatic habits. The option for healthy change is possible and available. Just as the dead leaf was holding back my fiddle-fig tree from freedom and health, the “dead habits” hold us back from fully living. There is both hope and reality for change. Begin and enjoy your own journey of healthy change.
Mary Gilliam, PT, MHS
Co-Owner of Arts and Wellness of Edenton