New Habits for the New Year

In November and December I was asked to deliver sessions on Stress Management, Work Life Balance, and Burn out for two different organizations in preparation for the holiday season. The sessions were provided to promote wellness and in recognition that the holidays can be stressful for employees due to the added demands and expectations on their time and resources. The goal for the sessions was to provide useful tips and techniques to help manage or reduce employee stress. In preparation for the sessions I researched and reviewed the current work on neuroscience, the modern brain science. I wanted to incorporate how our brains function optimally and what happens when faced with a stressful event or situation. Through the use of neuroimaging devices researchers can now confirm how the brain works. What they uncovered was the brain structure is not fixed or unchangeable but instead confirmed that the brain can be modified by experience even in adulthood. When we are experiencing high levels of stress we often make decisions or choices when we are in the limbic system or our amygdala. We will react to the stressful situations out of habit and not thinking clearly. When the habits are unhealthy each time we react we reinforce the neural pathway strengthening the habit.

Participants in the sessions expressed how they found themselves relying on unhealthy habits in responding to the stress. Most admitted to overeating, over spending, over use of alcohol, caffeine, sugar or smoking. These were the same habits they would then try to stop in the New Year by establishing their New Year’s resolution.

Your mind and body have become quite familiar with reactive patterns - they become habit. These habits are the ones that you know are in your best interest to break and replace with new life affirming and healthy habits but here lies the challenge. We know a habit is not good for us but wonder what we can do to successfully change it. The key in changing your response to how you handle stress is knowing what your stress triggers are. Once a trigger occurs you need to be intentional in responding differently to the trigger or situation.

How many of you set a new year’s resolution to change a habit only to break the resolution 2-3 weeks later? You are not alone and the relapse generally occurs due to the triggers that are connected to the habit. The neural pathways in the brain will get activated with a familiar triggering event and if you don't respond to the situation differently, creating a new neural pathway, you are at higher risk for relapsing to your old habit. The good news is you can create new neural pathways, neuroplasticity, with a new response and create a healthy habit. A colleague of mine successfully stopped smoking simply by creating a new habit and reinforcing it. She decided to focus on her breathing. Her new mantra was “breathe free” and whenever she experienced a trigger she focused on her breath, affirmed the message “breath free” and even included a push up when the situation allowed, which resulted in her breathing deeply until the urge to smoke had diminished.

In summary, the following are the key steps to new habit formation: • Focus on the goal or new habit • Know your triggers • When triggered focus on the new response, action or reaction creating new neural pathways in your brain • Practice, practice, practice.