New year, old you? How your brain sabotages your resolutions
In the early hours of January 1, in the wake of what for most has been a week-long food and booze bender, roughly three in 10 Canadians resolve to change up their habits, with the majority (65 per cent) dedicated to living a healthier lifestyle, says Ipsos. And of those resolution-makers, approximately three-quarters fail at their endeavour well before the year is up.
As it turns out, while their heart might be in the right place, their brain is actually working against them.
“We have lots of habits that are patterns of activity in our brain that cause it to react automatically,” says Dr. Tim Pychyl, associate professor of psychology at Carleton University. “And we’re typically trying to change things that are bad habits with New Year’s resolutions. Off the bat, it’s an upstream battle because it’s not the pattern we’re used to. We have a brain that doesn’t like to delay gratifications and wants to be in a good mood now. We have to work against that.”
Pychyl calls this sabotaging the “amygdala hijack” because the amygdala, which is present in the limbic system of the brain, is the seat of our emotions — it’s where our fight-or-flight response lives, as well as anything that addresses visceral feelings. It’s the same quick response system that kept our ancestors from being killed by wild animals, and it’s what makes us want to avoid negative feelings and seek instant gratification.
It’s up to our prefrontal cortex (ironically, the last area of the brain to evolve) to provide a measured response or executive function to what we perceive as unpleasant.
But unlike depression, for which there are treatment options, this kind of brain function can only be rectified with behavioural adjustment.
“We have to recognize that we have all sorts of feelings, but we can’t let the limbic system rule us,” Pychyl says.
He says the answer is actually quite simple, if difficult to adhere to: commitment. Although there are ways of tricking yourself into following through with your goals, too.
Just as our thoughts are extended by writing them down, some social scientists believe we can extend our willpower by engaging our environment.
“Say you want to go for a bike ride after work, but you also would like to go home and have a beer,” Pychyl illustrates. “Before leaving for work, place a beer on the counter and put your bike by the door. You know you won’t want to drink a warm beer at the end of the day, so go home, put it in the fridge and go for a bike ride as the beer chills. You’re using your environment to provide extended willpower for the behaviour you’re trying to engage in.”
If getting regular exercise is your resolution, he suggests agreeing to workout with a friend. Knowing you have a pre-established commitment to another person will give you the push you need.
Another mental practice that will help with following through with resolutions is mindfulness. The act of bringing intention and awareness to how we think, what we feel and how we behave, mindfulness helps to be more deliberate and conscious of what we’re doing.
“Paying attention to what you’re doing and making a mental recording of it allows you to establish intention,” says Patricia Rockman, senior director of The Centre for Mindfulness Studies. “If your goal is to lose 20 pounds, pay attention to what you’re eating. Then use that monitoring to bring awareness to what and how you’re eating. Mindfulness requires that we stop and bring awareness to what’s going on instead of following our habitual patterns.”
And sometimes success means accepting our failures.
“Mindfulness gets in the middle of that space between not doing what we intend to do and beating ourselves up over it,” she says. “It asks us to be willing to have the full range of experience and provides us with the opportunity to try again.”
Stopping and taking note of what you’re doing is key to mindfulness. Rockman espouses the “three-minute breathing space” exercise, which involves stopping what you’re doing, taking stock of your thoughts, emotions and body sensations, and narrowing your attention to your breathing. This shift will help you to evaluate what you’re doing and refocus your actions.
So, as we ease into January with resolutions of better health, calmer thinking and happier thoughts, use these strategies to help keep you on the wagon. And if you fall off, just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again.
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