Health: The secret to breaking bad habits

Though accidents, genetics and many conditions are beyond your control, of the things in your life that are, the best predictors of your future health are the habits you practise today.

Knowing that smoking damages our lungs, causes cancer and leads to heart attacks, strokes and vascular disease, why is it so hard to quit?

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Understanding that obesity wears down the joints of our knees and hips and increases the risk of heart disease and diabetes, why is it so hard for us to eat the right foods and get enough exercise?

Why do we keep making the same mistakes? Why do we keep getting into the same arguments?

We are creatures of habit, and that includes the habit of thought.

It is part of our human nature. More than 2,500 years ago, Buddha noted that which we habitually ponder upon will be our inclination.

Habits are functional. Our tendency to fall into habits gave our brains an evolutionary advantage. When we repeat a behaviour numerous times, it almost becomes hard-wired into our central nervous system. The connections between the neurons connected in the same pattern create efficiency and reduce the effort of thinking.

It makes it easy to find the path home, build a campfire, catch a fish and defend yourself from a rival.

In our everyday life, we easily fall into a pattern of relating to the people we know well without having to get to know our friends and family all over again. Even lost in thought while driving home, we find it without even trying.

Once our brains are set up with a longstanding routine, it can take Herculean effort to break out. Anyone who has tried to quit smoking, stick with a new exercise routine or switch to a healthy diet will agree.

Bad habits stick because of the brain’s efficiency — even when the brain’s logic commands us to do otherwise. I call this neurorigidity.

But the opposite is neuroplasticity — the now well-documented ability for the brain to change itself. We don’t have to remain stuck in the same patterns of behaviour and thought. Meditation, cognitive therapy and hypnosis have been shown through functional MRI studies to change how our brains work.

With commitment and practice, we can break out of maladaptive patterns of thought and create new and healthier habits of being.

If you really want to kick a bad habit, visualize the new you having achieved the goal you want to achieve. Engage your imagination with a clear and compelling vision of the new future you who has broken out of old patterns of thought and instead is supported by positive self-talk. You will have created a new pattern of thinking about yourself.

Then practise and practise a new way of being with this new vision of self in mind.

Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise column appears regularly in this paper. You can read more about achieving your positive potential in health at davidicuswong.wordpress.com.

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