When Will-Power is Not Enough: The Trick to Long-Term Lifestyle Changes

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So often, we emphasize the importance of “will power.” If only we could mobilize our will and focus on our goal, then surely we could achieve it. And yet, how often do we self-sabotage? Have you ever gone a new diet or exercise plan, only to give up within days of starting? Have you vowed to give up sugar, coffee, alcohol, or processed food, but the second you feel stressed or overwhelmed you reach for the chocolate chip cookie or the glass of red wine?

Our logical, rational mind is associated with the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. In an ideal situation, we are utilizing this region of the brain to make clear, concise decisions that are made for our highest good. Yet despite our best efforts, some part of us overrides this function. The activity in the limbic region of the brain can give us other signals in the form of emotional reactions and stress. From these sensations, our mind creates meaning which take on the form of thoughts- “I can’t cope, it’s all too much…..grab that cookie” or “I just want to feel better, so I need this glass of red wine to unwind.” But wait a second….we just said we are giving up cookies! Why can’t we use our will power to override this urge? Because the over activity of the limbic brain is temporarily disengaging the prefrontal cortex. In this stress state, your brain is primarily concerned with feeling better and not with being logical or rational. Your limbic brain is not concerned with maintaining your health goals. You just want to feel better! The physical organism, which is you, is driven to feel better in the moment. And so, we use the alcohol or the sugar or the junk food to temporarily make us feel “good” and settle for a quick fix that derails our health goals long- term.

 

So take a deep breath and reflect. How can we truly attain our goals, when we don’t even know how our own brains work? How can we master our minds when we don’t understand the complexity and interaction between the prefrontal cortex, the primitive brain, our thoughts, our emotions and our body?  This is a very simplified version of the complex science of the brain. And yet, in essence, you can already understand the process here. How can we truly make change without addressing our own stress response and emotions?

 

This is where the real work comes in. You can address the brain’s needs without sabotaging your goals. First, you must understand the basic science here. Your limbic brain is at the forefront directing your decisions. This is what is veering you off course. In hypnotherapy school, we refer to the emotional seat of the mind as the “subconscious.” Second, you need tools and techniques to calm the limbic region of your brain and re-engage your prefrontal cortex. You need to get back “online.” When you are “online”, you can make rational decisions without being overpowered by your own emotions or stress. The goal here is to calm the limbic brain and become conscious of any subconscious programs driving the arousal of your nervous system. This increased awareness can allow you to break old programs, habits and beliefs. There are many modalities to do this- hypnotherapy, Emotional Freedom Technique, and mindfulness to name a few.  These modalities bring subconscious patterns to conscious awareness. I find Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) to be particularly useful. EFT involves tapping on the meridian points of the body, which reorients the brain and body to the present moment. Tapping can help many individuals move out of their hyper-aroused state into a greater state of balance, while re-engaging with their cognitive, rational, linear mind.

 

Remember, you don’t have to walk through life making unconscious decisions. Freedom is within reach and it lies in the wiring of your brain!

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