Happy New Year! Are you thinking about your New Year resolutions yet? How often do you make a promise to yourself to change, eliminate, or build a habit, and it doesn’t seem to stick? Well, you’re not the only one. 88-91% of Americans fail to keep their New Year’s resolutions going. Yet, after all of the gingerbread-building contests, cookie exchanges, and cocktail parties - you are still ready to get back on the wagon with healthy eating. This is the time of year for fresh starts and new beginnings. The NOVA Physician Wellness Center team is here to help you stick to your intentions and make some lasting changes.
When tackling behavior change, it is important to understand how habits are formed in the first place. Habits are unconscious actions formed from repeating an action over time. A stimulus is often associated with a response or action. Habits are often connected to your dopamine response, meaning they make you feel good, generate a feeling of comfort, or make you feel some sense of relief. For example, snacking is often a relief from stress. This can make bad habits such as stress eating hard to shake. You can start to break this habit loop by replacing the response to a stimulus with a desired action. For example, if you are in the habit of snacking in response to stress - replace the snacking response with going for a walk. The same desired outcome of stress relief is achieved through a more desirable action or response. After some repetition, you will form a new habit of walking in response to stress as opposed to snacking. This is all possible due to neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is your brain’s ability to essentially “rewire” itself over time in response to a stimulus. Self-directed neuroplasticity (SDN) is the mind's ability to change brain function through the power of thought and can alter brain structure in potentially beneficial ways, overcoming habituated and maladaptive responses. (Schwartz & Begley, 2002). In other words, forcing alternative responses to stimuli can help you form a new habit over time.
The first stage of habit formation is the initiation phase, which involves choosing a behavior or habit to change. The next stage is the learning phase, in which you repeat the desired behavior over time. The stability phase is the final stage, in which the habit is formed.
The Steps for Forming A Healthy Habit:
Remember to visualize and self-affirm your habit. Research shows that affirmations can help reinforce habit formation. Saying your intentions out loud or in your head throughout the day can have a positive effect on behavior change. For example, if you are trying to develop a good exercise routine, you can say “I will go to the gym after work on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday this week” This can activate your reward/value system in your brain which can influence your actions.
It can also be helpful to adjust your environmental cues. Cues in the environment tend to influence the action or response. For example, having leftover holiday treats in the house can be a cue for stress eating. Remove or hide the foods that you are trying to avoid to eliminate this environmental cue. Make other healthy snacks more accessible by chopping some veggies ahead of time to have with some low-fat dressing. In this way, you can replace the environmental cue with a better option. This will set you up for success in changing your snacking habits.
Continue to check in with the NPWC team throughout the year to hold yourself accountable for your New Year’s resolutions.