When we start focusing on feeling more joyful, we soon become aware of some of our habits that are getting in the way of our joy. These habits can be actual behaviors or merely thought patterns. But trying to change an unwanted habit can be a daunting task. It used to make me very grumpy, to say the least, to try to stop doing that old habit! And that’s even when we are intentionally attempting to break the habit. But sometimes, we don’t even realize we are doing the old habit. It’s almost as if our brains are on autopilot. Lo and behold, that actually is the case!
In fact, scientific research has discovered neural pathways in our brains. These are like highways in which messages travel. A simple example of a pathway forming is if we feel stressed (or worried, threatened, anxious, etc.) and then drink alcohol or go shopping or rant to a friend or binge eat or do whatever that makes us feel better, then cells become wired together that tell the brain the next time we feel this stress, take this same road to feel better. The more the messages travel on the highway, the better formed the highway becomes. Hence, pathways -habits- become difficult to alter and responses become automated.
But, fortunately, with our conscious awareness, these roads can be changed. Neuroplasticity is a fancy term meaning the brain can form new pathways throughout our lives. Research has shown that new neural pathways are formed through new behaviors, and even by imagining behaviors. What matters is the repetition of the behavior, actual or imagined. We all have experienced that the more often we do something, the easier it gets. This is the highway becoming better formed.
Think of it as a trail through the woods. The first time through, it needs careful, slow footing and an axe to get through the heavy bush. But once the trail is blazed then it becomes a path to easily walk on. But what happens to the old pathways that are no longer traveled? Just like the trail in the forest would become overgrown if not walked upon, the pathway will naturally fade out if not used. But, how to not use these well-treaded paths?!
False Brain Messages
In the book, You Are Not Your Brain by Schwartz and Gladding, they suggest that we train our brains to perceive habits – good or bad ones – as vital to our survival. Deceptive brain messages, as they call them, convince us we must do this certain behavior to stay alive. Essentially, the brain’s job is to ensure our physical survival. When we feel a negative emotion, the brain sees it as an alarm it must take care of immediately. So, whatever seems beneficial and makes us feel better in the very short term is the route the brain will take. The brain, on its own, will not bypass immediate relief by considering long term goals and desires. The brain isn’t concerned with our future well-being, it just cares about preventing our imminent death. Our brains are not actually smart; it’s our minds that have all the wisdom.
Clearly seeing the brain’s function for what it is, it becomes easier to break free of old habits. When we notice we are engaging in an old habit, ask ourselves, what benefit does my brain think I am getting from this habit? Then use our mind to tell ourselves this is a deceptive brain message and that the brain thinks this habit will help us to survive. This is where it is essential to remind ourselves that the false brain message is not true and then to go over why it isn’t true. (Hint: it probably has to do with feeling unworthy.) Schwartz and Gladding say to then refocus by doing a different behavior or think a different thought.
An Example of Breaking a Habit
One of my negative habits is to check and re-check my work at my “day job”. And after I check it twice, to then check it again…and maybe again! The deceptive brain message from which this habit stems is about not being capable of doing my work correctly (which originated in childhood, but we don’t need to get into all that now). This message – even though not true – triggers the uncomfortable sensations of anxiety and worry. To immediately alleviate those sensations, I have trained myself (unconsciously) to check, ad nauseam, to make sure my work is correct. This gives me immediate relief from worry and anxiety, which is all the brain is concerned with – get those bad feelings to go away ASAP! Benefit achieved. But the problem with that is that the false brain message just keeps coming back and, what’s more, it gets worse (the trail get more and more blazed as it is used).
This is where the conscious mind must come in and say something along the lines of, ‘Whoa! This is not helping me in the long run. Yea, checking my work makes me feel better in that moment and may even prevent a panic attack, but I now know that I will feel more anxiety about this later. I now know this message of incapability is false. I learned it in childhood and have perpetuated it into my adult life. I know this message is not true now because I have successfully been doing these work tasks for years.’ And so on, until I have convinced myself the brain message is not true.
Next step is to refocus on a completely different activity or thought. I keep a few refocus activities stashed in my mental pocket, so they are available to me without having to struggle to come up with something when I am deep in false brain message mode. Some of mine are going for a walk, learning Italian words, looking at nature, appreciating a beautiful object, Googling a place I’d like to travel, crafting. The refocusing activities should be positive things or, at least, not detrimental. We don’t want to replace a bad habit with a new, but still not helpful one.
What old, negative habit do you want to let go of? What false brain message is associated with it? Why is the message not true?
Research shows that it takes a few weeks of persistence, practice, and focused repetition to make a new neural pathway. Remember you are not just breaking a bad habit, but squashing false brain messages. So give it a try and hang in there!