Tuesday, December 1, 2015

New Year Resolutions change, habits and addictions

Well, here we are again, that time of the year when the jolly fat fella in the red suit squeezes his way down the chimney to our eagerly awaiting stockings. Don’t forget to leave out the glass of milk and carrot for the reindeer!

Its also the time of year when we make all sorts of New Year resolutions to not to this, do that, give up this and to do more of something else. Good intentions. The bad news is that most New Year resolutions turn to custard in about a month, if not less. We are left with regret, thoughts of what might have been and another failed attempt at learning to play the bagpipes at the Edinburgh Tattoo. Or, as my now seemingly adult children say-whatever!

There are some good reasons for this. The first is that change is enormously difficult for people. We are creatures of habit and our brains need to be trained to alter the neuronal pathways that makes a habit so, well……….habitual. When we encounter change, the neuroscientists tell us, we experience a similar physical experience to pain. And most of us, apart from certain strange types, want to avoid personal pain. It takes about 3 months to re-habituate: that is, get rid of one habit and change it for another. It is no easy fix. Trust me, I’ve been helping people change for thirty-five-years now and its hard work. No, not the same people!

I’ve been having a great conversation with a young man, Nathan Meola in Sydney (look him up if you are interested in weight loss and lifestyle change), who is helping people change their lives by losing weight. He’s a personal trainer and doing great work helping people exercise, change their diet and generally fight the flab. We have been sharing the observation and the frustration that the losing weight (or changing whatever habit) is not the real issue. The fat, smoking, excessive drinking, working too hard, is only the symptom, the outcome.

What’s important is to work out why it is the habit occurs in the first place. One key is identifying the drivers that make me eat or smoke, for example. If we understand why we have an addiction, then we target that and then the change of behaviour afterwards. It is important to remember that when you are fighting an addiction, whatever it is, you are fighting some really powerful chemical systems in your brain.

Dopamine (among some other similar chemicals) release in our brain causes us to feel reward, pleasure. In addictions it is released when we undertake our addicted behaviour and makes us feel good: out of our awareness. We then seek this reward quite unconsciously. So, working out why we need this reward is important as part of the behaviour change.

If, for example, I eat to make myself less attractive to the opposite sex, or to give me an excuse to avoid something else, or I smoke to soothe anxiety, then I need to address these issues first. Why do I eat this crappy takeaway food or light up this cigarette?

And, by the way, we are not limiting all this to addictions-it has meaning for all sorts of change. Leaders might want to think about this when trying to get their team members to change their behaviour in their workplace.

It might surprise you but combating the root cause, even if we don’t fully understand it, is not so difficult as it sounds and doesn’t need you to spend endless hours on the couch. I know that sounds odd but there it is. We can combat and change our thinking. There are some quite simple techniques that can be used to help you combat negative ideas, self-esteem issues, self-image problems, and compulsions, for example. No need for psychoanalysis but some thought about what it is that drives me to my habit is useful and fixable.

So, good luck with your New Year resolutions but spontaneous decisions to change may well be ineffective. Some preparation is more useful with high motivation to succeed. Talk to your friendly psychologist for help J.