Undoubtedly, the hardest thing I’ve ever undertaken in life has been changing my habits from stopping fast food to prioritizing sleep to setting healthy boundaries with friends and family.
Here at Digital Nomad Health, we are all about disease prevention. Treatments are great when they are the right fit but always come with many side effects, not to mention they are costly.
What’s a Change in Behavior?
Perhaps at work, you easily get frustrated at a certain coworker and immediately begin to behave passive-aggressively towards them. It’s a habit; you hardly know you’re doing it.
You leave work constantly feeling bad. You wished you could behave differently; kinder, more patient, or at least not passive-aggressively.
Suddenly, a day comes when you’re done with that behavior. It no longer serves you and hurts you more than your poor coworker. You stop it because now you’re fully aware of it. You feel that negative sensation immediately in your body and are no longer willing to suffer the aftermath of the behavior.
Recognizing The Need For Behavioral Change
There is a time for medications, a time for surgery, and a time for behavioral change. They sort of go in that order from easiest to hardest.
Giving Up Too Soon
Most of our patients give up a habit change far too soon. Before it even had a chance to get imprinted on our nervous system.
A habit change, a behavioral action we engage in, consistently restructures nerve connections. All the synapses and neurotransmitter receptors change their architecture to make the new behavior easier to execute.
The first step is resistance – the body wants to go back to homeostasis. Then comes the confusing state where we doubt whether this new habit is necessary. But if we stick with it long enough, it just sticks. It has become our norm, our baseline.
Meaningful Health Outcomes
At DNH, we wouldn’t spend much time talking about habit changes if they weren’t more potent than medical interventions. For example, a statin drug can decrease apoB levels, decrease the risk of atherosclerosis, and perhaps even decrease the number of unstable plaque.
But that same drug will increase the risk of diabetes and come with a few minor side effects. It requires our patients to take the pill regularly and come in for routine blood tests. These are also necessary habit changes, but they don’t impact our metabolic system, sleep, muscle mass, or visceral fat.
Drugs, in that way, tend to have one-dimensional actions. They were designed to do one thing and do that thing well. However, a habit change such as exercise or a diet change has a multitude of downstream positive effects, which is why lifestyle changes trump medical interventions.
Getting Habits to Stick
Here are the tricks we use with our patients to help them achieve long-lasting behavioral changes. The goal is to help retain their brain without much effort. It takes time, but it works.
Understand that what you are doing and how you are doing things has been formed within you for decades, reinforced by your surroundings, and you’ve rewarded yourself for continuing those habits.
1. Set Realistic Goals
What do you want to achieve exactly? Setting smaller goals and celebrating those wins is more likely to be successful than trying to achieve your final outcome or grandiose goals right off the bat.
Taking breaks from sedentary tasks to do some stretching is a more realistic goal than starting a gym membership and going there 2 hours 4x per week.
2. Start Small
Habit change can begin with subtle changes, so subtle that it’s hardly difficult for you to do. But the fact that you did it is a success and will feel great.
Furthermore, you’ll train your brain to be more plastic to accept change. You’re telling your nervous system that more is to come, so be prepared to change.
3. Identify The Worst Habits
If you’re going to put the time and effort into changing habits, focus on the worst offenders. It’s better to change habits that will have the biggest impacts than focusing on something less significant.
Our patients may want to start eating organic when there are far more important and necessary behavioral changes to focus on.
4. Reward Yourself
Each win is worth a reward. A win is when you set out to do something, and you either achieve it or feel less resistance in getting there.
A nudge is all that is needed, or writing it in a journal or sharing it with a loved one. Just acknowledging such little wins reprograms the brain to appreciate such change.
5. Failure Is Your Friend
Just as you should celebrate little wins, you should not punish yourself if you fail. In fact, every time you fail, the fact that you didn’t achieve what you wanted will get you one step closer.
The inner resistance is the changing of neurotransmitters, protein synthesis, and gene activation, which later creates lasting habits.
6. Identify Obstacles
If you perceive failure, why did it happen, and what could you do differently the next time? No judgment, just what could be done differently?
Perhaps I did too much work late into the night, activating my brain and making it hard to fall asleep. Next time, I can try to finish my work sooner or simply not do it if my sleep is my priority.
7. Explore Thoughts & Feelings
When we change habits, our brains go on overdrive. “You’re a loser!” “What are you doing?!” “Just give up already!” “You’re wasting your time.” And many other negative thoughts.
Explore all thoughts and feelings. We like to have our patients write them down and then discuss them with us. These thoughts tend to create a lot of resistance and friction, and they tell us stories about ourselves that aren’t true.
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