This is a guest post by Stefanie C. Barthmare. She is a therapist in private practice and provides counseling services in Houston, TX. Her specialties include compulsive eating & body image issues, weight loss, couples counseling & relationship problems, therapy for trauma, anxiety management & stress management, and counselor supervision. If you want to guest post on this blog, get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Did you know that one small shift in perception can trigger changes impacting many areas of our lives? In fact, scientist are now convinced that if we focus on changing one long standing pattern, or "keystone habit," it may be possible to reprogram an entire network of other routines in our lives as well. In the book, "The Power of Habit," Charles Duhigg explores how our vast and myriad daily routines, which may feel like independent and well-thought out decisions, are actually just an infinite web of habits. These habits, over time, impact when we eat, what we eat, what we order at restaurants, how frequently we exercise and what we do in our relationships, among other things. In short, he suggests that our daily routines become the habits that impact our "health, productivity, financial security and happiness."
Why is this whole idea of understanding our habits so important? It's complicated. And I'm not sure there is one specific answer. What I know is that maintaining a significant weight loss, or making any other lifestyle improvements requires us to make enduring changes in our routines, ones that we still practice long after we stop "dieting." In fact, if we're going to maintain our weight, we need our habits to support us in all sorts of situations, like when stress strikes or when we are out of our comfort zone. Unfortunately, when most people want to lose weight they "diet," which doesn't usually mean overhauling old eating habits. A "diet" temporarily interrupts our habitual routine of eating high calorie foods (like ice cream or cookies) that, for example, we have almost imperceptibly paired with the experience of relaxing at night while watching the news. In fact, at a certain point, we even began anticipating, with increased intensity, the whole experience of putting on our pjs, sinking into the couch, turning on the news and eating some delicious snack (probably one that is not on our "diet"). Eventually, even the sight of ice cream triggers our deeply ingrained anticipatory reward. Ice cream or cookies mean relaxation. So, we go back to eating the high calorie food as soon as we are off the "diet" so we can relax, or feel comforted after a hard day of work. It happens almost every time.
Most assuredly, we can all relate to trying to make changes that seem both possible and sustainable at the onset, only to feel the undeniably powerful pull of old habits. Upon closer examination, most of our lives are filled with automatic decisions that we don't think about anymore. Conscious choice reroutes itself into habit, which is precisely what we want it to do. On one hand, it's a gift to not have to think about every little decision, on the other hand, it can be problematic to fall back on old habits that might have gotten us into trouble. In fact, relying on our brain's "cue/trigger-routine-reward" system when choosing dessert (or other activities) we ultimately become vulnerable to more unconscious drivers. So, as long as we have good habits, it is ok to be dependent on doing what we do without thinking. My challenge today is to consider this: what are we really looking for when we reach for the ice cream, the cookie or the extra glass of wine?