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Change Your Brain, Change Your Routine, Change Your Life

Learn how to coax your stubborn brain into accepting change to achieve the healthiest you. From The Program by Dr. Kelly Traver and Betty Kelly Sargent

Your Resistant Brain
Although your brain can change, it usually won’t do so without putting up a bit of a fight. That’s because it is set up to resist change, especially sudden change. Your brain operates under the same principle as your body: homeostasis. Just as your body’s physiology works to keep parameters such as calcium, blood sugar, and weight stable, so your brain works hard to continue whatever behavior has become the norm. It seems to say, “Okay, I got you here with this behavior and you’re still alive, so just keep on doing what you’ve been doing and everything will be fine.” Your hypothalamus, in the center of your brain, is the master controller of homeostasis. The hypothalamus controls things like hunger, thirst, and body temperature. It also determines whether your stress response fires and whether reproductive hormones are released. The list of duties performed by your hypothalamus is long. All of the other parts of the brain, especially your emotional limbic system, fight to influence the hypothalamus.

Too rapid a change is interpreted as a stressful event by most brains. Your brain will automatically resist a sudden change in your behavior or routine, and just knowing this can be a big help when you are trying to switch from a not-so-healthful behavior to a healthful one. Studies using functional MRI scans of the brain have evaluated patients who were asked to make a change. If a patient is asked to make a big change, the scan shows activation of the amygdala (a-MIG duh-luh), the seat of the stress response. But if the subject is asked to make a small change, the amygdala remains quiet. People who are ultimately successful in initiating and maintaining major behavioral change usually do it through gradual, step-by-step changes. That’s how The Program works and, actually, why it works so well. I know it isn’t always easy to wait for results that take place gradually. People usually want instant gratification, but for most of us this just isn’t realistic. We need to accept the fact that most people’s brains are not well set up to handle rapid change. For the majority of us, slow and steady change is actually the quickest road to long-lasting results.

If you feel your motivation beginning to slip, it is probably because your brain is saying “Oh no, you don’t! I sense a change here, and I’m not going to let that happen.” This can leave you feeling frustrated and confused. How, you ask yourself, can you so desperately want to make a change one day but then come up with a thousand reasons not to the next? When this happens, remind yourself that this is simply an example of your brain working against you — doing what it thinks it has to do to protect you. You can outsmart it, though. Your brain will start to feel more comfortable with your new actions once you have repeated the new behavior many times, so start repeating the new action over and over again.

Another way to help your brain accept change is to work within a structure. Your brain is very rule-based, so it generally feels more comfortable when the rules are clearly defined. It takes less energy for your brain when you have a clear set of rules to guide it than when you have to make new decisions all along the way. The trick with structure, though, is that if you want to create lasting behavior change, you need to learn how to perform a behavior in all sorts of situations that may be outside the structure you are following. I know this sounds a little complicated, but it’s really not. Let’s look at the example of a weight loss plan that tells you exactly what to eat.

You may be very successful while you are on the diet because you don’t need to make any decisions about what to eat, but after you have lost the weight you have no idea how to eat in a healthful way on your own. The diet didn’t teach you that. Certainly, structure can be very helpful in the beginning, but pay attention to the process within the structure. The process (in this case the original diet) should show you how to create your own rules — rules that you can live with forever. This is what The Program is designed to do.

As you can see, it is not always easy to change the way you behave, but the good news is that you can do it. We know that if you practice a new behavior over and over for a long enough period of time, your brain will eventually decide that this new behavior is the one that needs to be protected and continued. The key words here are “over and over.” You need to repeat the new behavior for long enough to cement it permanently into your brain and therefore into your life.

Conclusion: Although your brain can change, it is generally set up to resist change, especially sudden change. People who are ultimately successful in initiating and maintaining major behavioral changes usually make the changes gradually, one step at a time.

Kelly Traver, M.D., author of The Program: The Brain-Smart Approach to the Healthiest You: The Life-Changing 12-Week Method (Copyright © 2009 by Kelly Traver, M.D., and Elizabeth Kelly Sargent), has been practicing medicine for more than seventeen years. She recently served as medical director at Google and is currently on the board for the Institute for the Future. Dr. Traver is the founder of Healthiest You, a company that works with corporations, health care organizations, and the government to help individuals become more empowered and engaged in their health.

Betty Kelly Sargent is a writer and veteran book and magazine editor, as well as a certified life coach.




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