An Abbreviated Lesson on Behavior, Habits and Change

5 years ago

On Friday, February 17, I attended a class for health care professionals (HCP) titled, “How the Brain Forms New Habits and Why Willpower is Not Enough”.  The purpose for me in going was twofold.  The first, and simplest, is that every two years nurses, as well as other HCPs, need a certain amount of continuing education credits in order to renew their licenses.  While home study courses are a convenient way to do this, I like to attend classes, outside the home, for the social aspect and the richness others questions and comments can bring to the offering.  The second is that the title intrigued me.  Goodness knows, I keep trying to loose weight while examining how I ever got myself into a fat place and why I don’t have the willpower to just eat less then I burn daily.  While I eat healthily, I also include a lot of worthless calories in my diet.   That, and not getting my tush out to exercise daily, has kept my weight on the increase.  Not good for a vain, post-menopausal woman with a propensity for chubbiness.  This class seemed like a great way to learn more about how to initiate my own personal habit change and it didn’t disappoint.  

The course, taught by Brian King, Ph.D., and sponsored by the Institute for Brain Potential brought me lots of insights that I have been sharing with family, friends and colleagues.  Now, I am sharing this as a blog post in hopes that there are others who can gain from what I learned.   As background first though, the content was based on scientific research, publications from peer-reviewed journals and anecdotal comments from Dr. King.   Also to note, the point for most HCPs is to learn more about how to facilitate change for their patients/clients, who have addictions or behaviors that are unhealthy and who want to conquer them and move to a healthier and sustainable place.   Also, while I will share insights, I don’t plan on regurgitating the content of the seminar, statement by statement.  Thinking about that further, I don’t think I could, nor would I want to do that.   My expertise is women’s health, puberty, periods, and menopause, not neurological stuff.  So, for those experts out there, please forgive any simplicity you may read in this, as I am trying to communicate in a way that I can understand and is meaningful for the changes I, as well as others, are trying to make in their lives.   Also, most of what I am sharing came from the class handouts and I want to make certain that is known.  

Now for the insights:  
“Knowledge is insufficient to promote change, change is hard and willpower is not enough.”  In other words, just because you have knowledge doesn’t mean that making a behavior change will be easy.  While Dr. King emphasized the difficulty in behavior change, I was hoping to hear about how to make it easy.  And, none of it is.  That is why managing addiction and staying off of the addicting substance or making a behavior change, such as better eating habits, is a lifelong process.

“Lapses and relapses are a normal part of the cycle.”  It takes a daily focus and all should not be abandoned just because one has a bad day.  In my mind, just go on and don’t continue to beat yourself up because you didn’t exercise or ate too much one-day.   The insight for me is the normalizing aspect of relapse.  Though it isn’t what I want to happen, when it does, unfortunately, I am in good company.  However, I want to be in the group that gets back on the wagon the next day.  

“Habits are learned and maintained by reinforcement circuits.”  Reinforcement doesn’t always have to be a good thing, as there is negative reinforcement also that helps the bad habit continue.  Dopamine, a brain neurotransmitter, is associated with reward seeking behaviors.  (Neurotransmitters relay information from one part of the brain to another part.)  With this, we continue to seek certain behaviors that give us some reward whether the behavior is good for us or not.  (In my simple way, this means that there is a neurological reason for repeat of bad, as well as good habits.)

 “Habits have triggers.”  We need to learn what those are for us and find ways to break the cycle – easier said than done.  Remember what I said about habits not being easy to change!!

“Obesity is a complex issue.”   You may be saying:  NurseElaine, please tell me you knew that already – I did.  It is the detail that is key here.   We are addicted to eating.  There is a healthy cycle of eating and that is when one is hungry, they eat and then stop until there is hunger. The whole thing gets messed up when we short cut this cycle by eating when we are not hungry and that can lead to over-indulgence again and again and again.

 “Carbs increase serotonin and improves mood.”  Serotonin is also a neurotransmitter and is mostly found in our digestinal tract and in blood platelets.   The cycle here is that since serotonin is produced when we eat and we feel better, we tend to eat so we can get the good feeling.  Carbs, especially, can increase serotonin and your mood.  However, if you eat when you feel bad, you can then begin to feel bad for eating and then you eat some more to feel better and…you get the rest of this.  Also mentioned was that eating because of boredom is a great motivator to over eat because it is distracting and easy.  Also to know is that boredom is great motivator for other bad habits too.  

Behaviors stay forever in our brains.  That is why when someone is an addict, they are always are an addict.  Alcoholics Anonymous has the creed of one day at a time because one always has the urge to drink.  You can apply this to the habit of over-eating and the good feeling one gets.  It is sure more comforting to me to be full, then hungry.  However, it sure could take less than I eat to reach a feeling of fullness.  Plus, I eat, even when I am not hungry.  Chocolate tastes good anytime to me.  Other feel good addictive substances are:  tobacco, marijuana, heroin, prescription drugs, caffeine and sedatives.  

Stress leads to over-eating and other bad habits.  While it also leads to other behaviors, it seems as if we divert the things we need to do to eliminate the stress by eating, drug taking, etc.  There is a part of the brain that holds the fear factor.  Therefore, when we have fear or stress, it can make us more resistant to change.  We want to stay with the familiar and fearful, no matter how bad it is for us.  

There are ways to reduce stress-driven habits.  The following list was presented during the class as ways to help reduce the stressors of life.  Before I provide the list, I want to mention that Dr. King expressed that he believes that it is the stressors of life causing obesity and other bad habits.  He feels as if we are living in extremely stressful times.  In fact, I asked him whether he thought that food addictions due to additives placed in our food supply was causing addiction.  He emphatically said NO.  It is always easier to blame something else than to get into our own beings and how we contribute to our addictions.  

How to prevent stress:  

  • Schedule and pacing
  • Work rest schedules (vacations can help)
  • Avoid procrastination and find ways to become more efficient in your work and life.  
  • Improve sleep adequacy and quality (Sleep deprivation increases risk taking and immediate reward seeking behavior and sleeping less than 5 hours a night is associated with diabetes and obesity.)
  • Control helps to reduce the impact of stressful situations.  (Avoid a bad scene or skip a family event that you know will be horrid.)
  • Practice problem solving skills.  
  • Eat at regular times every day.  
  • Enrich your life.  Take a yoga class, become a roller derby queen (this is for you Laine),
  • Social interactions are a huge source of rewards.  (It was suggested that role-playing might help those uneasy with social situations.)

A1 Allele and its relationship to the development of negative behaviors.  There was also an interesting bit of information on the A1 Allele.  People with A1 Allele make fewer dopamine receptors.  At the beginning of this post I said that dopamine is associated with reward seeking behaviors.  People with the A1 Allele, have issues with reward seeking behaviors.  They are more likely to develop alcohol or substance abuse and have problems quitting, can develop gambling problems, and become obese, amongst other issues.  

Willpower:  As you can imagine at this point, your brain is in control of your willpower.  The orbitofrontal cortex can stall habits.  It is an active process that requires that you understand what you do and why you are doing it.  A big part of changing behaviors is remembering why you DON’T want to do something.  Keep that in active memory and continue to remind yourself.  

Groups Help:  Habits are contagious.  “We tend to act, feel and think like those around us.”  Find people you want to emulate and stick with them.  Groups like Weight Watchers, Alcoholics Anonymous, and other types of group dynamics can be very supportive and rewarding.  

Making New Behaviors into a Habit:  How to do that?

  • Repetition and reward are very important.  Practice the change in habit until it becomes automatic.  
  • Avoid places, thoughts and people who have the habits you are trying to change.
  • Reward your good behavior (A good way may be to by some clothes when you get down to a certain size.)
  • Know what triggers you need to avoid and what helps keep you on track.  
  • Enrich your life with the things you enjoy doing.  
  • Set up realistic expectations for yourself and avoid the all or none.  
  • Be honest and don’t criticize yourself.   (We had to self-critique at work.  I was always my own most positive evaluator.  My thinking was to let someone else say something negative; I was only going to share the good stuff.  The good results were real; I just chose to use that as the gauge to my productivity.)
  • Focus on creating an environment that works for you instead of trying to act well in an unsupportive environment.  

Almost done:  In closing this very long, yet I hope informative post, I want to ensure that readers know that this information came from the slides and talk.  Also, I want to thank Dr. King, again, as I have already begun to better understand my weak times and am doing other things to replace the overeating I do during evening television viewing.  Thank you iPAD Words with Friends, and other games I enjoy, as I lost 2.5 pounds in my first week of Weight Watchers. 

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