Here at Sweat City we talk a lot about “creating new patterns”, about deciding upon a goal and then consistently working towards achieving it. Now obviously that’s much easier said than done. We’ve all experienced the feeling of thinking we want to go to the gym more often, or to quit smoking (yep, I was once a 20 a day kind of a girl), or to stop obsessing over the loser ex that treated us like crap anyway.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe that it’s truly possible for US…even if others around us have made it look ‘easy’.
Breaking negative patterns and creating a life of new, positive habits has become a passion of mine, stemming from my own personal journey and experiences. It’s what got me interested in the development of neuroscience; that is how and why the human brain works the way that it does.
I myself am having a hard day today; I’m unusually tired and I don’t seem to be communicating with others particularly well. I was staring out of the window at the bad weather instead of doing all the work that I have piled up…. Anybody relate? I suddenly realized that despite all the above being very true, it hadn’t once occurred to me to resort to my old ‘comforts’ of negative behaviors with food, isolating myself and not working out. Things have really changed for me on every level.
Then I remembered one of the most interesting and useful things I ever heard about how the brain processes the creation of new thought patterns. So I thought that I’d share it with you all
Think of the brain like a vast tropical jungle. Now there are parts of the jungle that have been explored, there are parts that are as wild and over-grown as they were thousands of years ago. Say there is a path to a water source that was found. It might not be the cleanest water, or the best tasting but you know that it’s there. Consequently every time that you’re thirsty you go down the path that has already been cleared away and is easy to walk down with no overgrowth or hanging branches in the way and you drink that water. The water might be kind of dirty and it might even make you a little sick but it’s there and it’s easy and so that’s what we do.
This is how a negative thought process works in our brains. For example; “I had a super stressful day at work, so I’m going to get wasted, eat a bucket of fried chicken and stay out until 4am on a school night.
Back in the jungle
What happens though when we hear tales of the purest, sweetest tasting water that ever existed, that fills you with real energy and a zest for life? We decide to go after that fresh water, except that it means we have to cut a whole new path in our ‘jungle’ brain patterns. And it’s hard! Our new path has to be created by pure will and effort on our part. No one will cut down the bushes and vines and beat down the long grass except us. But we do it! And it’s amazing We decide that we’re ALWAYS going to drink that pure, fresh water.
This represents a discovery that we can all make, such as that dealing with a super stressful day by going to the gym, sweating out our frustrations, eating a healthy meal and then getting a good nights sleep, is SO MUCH BETTER for our bodies and our brains than alcohol, wings and sleep deprivation.
But what can happen all too easily after the next horrendous day at work? We’re tired and are not really concentrating and somehow we’re back at the bar and not in the gym!! For many of us we can take that as a sign that we’re somehow just not meant to drink the delicious life giving water. After all… that original cleared pathway in the jungle didn’t disappear did it?!
Here’s the thing that has been scientifically proven about the human brain and it’s ‘neural pathways’, or paths through the jungle to you and me
They never actually disappear, we can never ‘un-create them’. BUT what we CAN DO is with a consistent applied effort over a time period of between 21 days and 3 months (depending on the strength of the negative habit) is cause the original path (leading to the BAD water) to become completely overgrown. This CAN and WILL happen if it is not used for a while: our 3 -month time commitment. At the same time our NEW PATH is becoming neater, and less and less chaotic and difficult to walk down because we are choosing to walk down it all the time.
Eventually the NEW neural pathway in our brains becomes the one we ‘walk down’ automatically. This is why I now automatically want to go for a run or do a spin class when I’m stressed instead of lighting up a cigarette, hooking up with a random person, or eating my way through the contents of my local deli. Those old, negative, even soul-destroying habits of mine are SO OVERGROWN in my brain that my brain forgets that they’re an option
What does this mean for you and me? :)
It means that we are not ‘weird’ or incapable of change because we’ve been conditioned to think that REAL change can or should happen overnight!! It doesn’t. Not for anybody and not for any habit. It can be as silly as deciding to brush our teeth with the opposite hand that we usually use, and it can be as serious as reclaiming our bodies from abusive habits and neglectful behaviors… and every habit in between. They ALL take TIME.
So it may be a jungle in there; but it’s not one that can’t be explored and CONQUERED with the right effort, support and commitment
FYI: I’d love to say that I’m the genius that figures this all out but unfortunately not !!
Here are two GREAT books: ‘QUIET LEADERSHIP’ by David Rock (I thoroughly recommend this one!) and ‘A USER’S GUIDE TO THE BRAIN’ by J.J Ratey which is much heavier going but very interesting if this really grabs your interest
Stay warm and dry peeps!! :) Thanks for reading!