Habit: How to Overcome Unhealthy Habits and How to Adopt Healthy Habits. Part One: Obstacles

Habit is either the best of servants or the worst of masters.

Most of the obstacles in our way to changing a habit, are phantoms of fear, created by a lack of knowledge, understanding, and experience. The difficulty with changing habit, if you lack experience, is the difficulty of appreciating the rewards of health during the decision-making phase. 

With experience, you will discover that being healthy is more fulfilling. The healthier you become, the more you will be motivated by and able to include these certain rewards to influence and inspire your choices. As your health improves, you will discover that your resolve and capabilities will also flourish. 

Health is the Goal
When health is the goal, rather than weight loss or an increase in body size, better choices are made, the health benefits are more comprehensive and sustainable, and include: beauty, weight management, muscle development, and healthy aging.

Myth #1. It takes a short amount of time to become unhealthy and a longer amount of time to become healthy. 

It takes a relatively long time to become unhealthy when you neglect your basic health habits and the good news is that the benefits of healthy habits can be felt immediately. Our body is designed with systems in place to heal itself and to maintain health. It is wise to support these functions with healthy habits.

On this odyssey of collecting the best information about health I am interested in the most direct route. I look to the experts. An expert is someone who has devoted their professional life to and considered all that has come before them in their chosen area of expertise. Let's benefit from their hard work and find the most effective methods to help reach our destination: health. 

In the twelve major life domains that Piers Steel, PhD, highlights in his book The Procrastination Equation as the areas where we procrastinate the most, health is second, after career, and followed third by finances. 

Never before in our history have there been as many temptations, as succulently devised, as readily available, and as adeptly marketed. Adam and Eve only had to deal with a juicy apple purveyed by a serpent. Nowadays, our apple is caramel coated and chocolate dipped, marketed with a multi-million dollar advertising campaign in a blitz of commercials, pop-ups, and inserts. Inevitably, as our lives drown in these diversions, our procrastination is on the rise.

Dr. Steel's book helps us to understand why we procrastinate and what we can do about it.

When you have accurate information it clears the way for understanding and effective solutions and if there is a short cut to health this is it: be honest with yourself and know how your body works. Common sense requires knowledge and understanding. 

When you make healthier choices based on accurate information about how your body functions, your choices will be more effective. 

A habit is a re-current, often unconscious pattern of behaviour that is acquired by learning or frequent repetition.

The Neurobiology of Habit: Habits Form in the Brain

When it comes to a resolve to be healthier, who has not experienced the conflict between reasonable intention and pleasurable impulse? What is happening when you give in to that impulse is the Limbic System overriding the Prefrontal Cortex of your brain enabled by the neurotransmitter dopamine which is the master molecule of pleasure and addiction.


Prefrontal Cortex
In evolutionary terms, the prefrontal cortex is the most  recent part of our brain to develop. Over 5 million years of evolution the human brain tripled in size and the prefrontal cortex increased in size six fold. It makes up the larger percentage of the brain than any other animal. This part of the brain is the last to develop as we mature. 

The prefrontal cortex is the reasoning, decision-making and problem-solving area of the brain, giving us the ability to plan complex cognitive behaviours, to have self control, suppress urges and to delay immediate gratification for a better, long-term result and it depends on the limbic system for alertness and the emotional link to have control. It orchestrates thoughts and actions in accordance with internal goals, learns from experience and makes it possible to differentiate conflicting thoughts and values such as good/bad, better/best. This area of the brain makes it possible to have concentration and willpower and the more active it becomes, the more patient we can be.

Disorders related to the prefrontal cortex include dementia, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, depression, suicide, sociopathic and criminal behaviour, and addiction. 

Limbic System
The Limbic System is a dopamine-rich, inner set of brain structures that regulates and influences functions of the autonomic nervous and endocrine systems such as heart rate and blood pressure, hunger, thirst, sleep/wake cycle, and sexual arousal.

It is the oldest part of the brain and evolved after the brain stem. It is the emotional and motivational brain where mostly unconscious value judgements are made, where memory begins, and when emotion and memory functions are combined, mark behavior with positive and negative feelings. The limbic system plays a role in salience (what grabs your attention), spontaneity and creativity.
The amygdala triggers responses to strong emotion giving us our flight/fight/freeze instinct, sweaty palms, increased heart and respiratory rate and stress hormone release.
The hippocampus is associated with memory and learning and classifies information for the formation of long term memory. It is also involved in interpreting incoming neural signals and with spatial relationship.
The hypothalamus could be called the hyperthalamus because it is so busy. It is linked to the pituitary gland to control many of the body's functions and controls circadian rhythms, homeostasis (making sure your body runs smoothly), appetite, thirst, bodily urges and plays a role in autonomic (body functions that operate without your conscious control like heart beat) and motor (conscious movement) functions.
The thalamus is THE relay station in the brain. All incoming sensory signals: auditory, visual, olfactory, somatosensory (from skin and internal organs) pass through the thalamus to other parts of the brain for processing and it is also involved in motor control.

Disorders related to the limbic system include mood disorders, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, anxiety, depression and mania. 

Is a chemical substance that is biosynthesized by nervous tissue and the adrenal glands and is a precursor to epinephrine / adrenaline, and norepinephrine / noradrenaline. These stress hormones - neurotransmitters are biosynthesized by dopamine. Dopamine acts as a hormone and as a neurotransmitter or messenger between nerve cells or between nerves and muscle tissue.
Dopamine has important roles in behaviour, mood, working memory and learning, attention, sleep, voluntary movement, motivation and reward: regulating feelings of pleasure especially with food, exercise, acquiring new behaviour, sex and drugs, reinforcing and motivating repetition. Dopamine is more associated with the anticipation of pleasure than the consummation of pleasure; more to do with wanting, rather than liking. Dopamine pathways are pathologically altered by addictive behaviour and the addictive substance becomes required to simulate feelings of pleasure, euphoria and satisfaction. Innately we are designed to learn to repeat behaviours that lead to maximizing rewards.

Chronic Stress

Fatigue, anger, stress and poor health affect the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, limbic system and dopamine. The brain's default setting is autopilot and the limbic system is stronger and reflex reactions overpower good intentions when there is chronic stress. There is a distinctive shift away from adaptive goal directed decision making towards habitual behaviours. Unhealthy habits and the long term neglect of basic health habits is a chronic stress for the body.

All non-essential physiological systems shut down, our stress hormones (adrenaline/noradrenaline) kick in and there is an increase of blood pressure, heart rate, a release of glucose for a burst of energy and an increase of blood and oxygen to muscle tissue in response to a threat. Our stress response of flight or fight was originally designed to be brief and to help us in an immediate physical emergency only. 

But to a surprising extent, we humans turn on the same sort of response when feeling stressed out about the mortgages or relationships or our own mortality, and at those times the stress-response is anything but helpful, states Robert Sapolsky, Professor of Neurobiology at Stanford University and a research associate at The National Museum of Kenya.
When people burdened with stress start to feel bad physically, it is not just in their minds. Emotional crisis brings on specific changes in the body. If those responses are prolonged or set in motion too often, the resulting wear and tear can lead to alteration throughout all organ systems, concludes Dr. Sapolsky. Immune, cardiovascular, nervous, digestive, hormonal and reproductive systems, and the brain are altered. Damage to chromosomes, premature aging, inhibition of insulin production, and major depression can result, and chronic stress is making us more vulnerable to disease. 

Myth#2. People procrastinate because they are perfectionists.

Perfectionists are less likely to procrastinate than non-perfectionists.

The defining, feature characteristic that all procrastinators have in common is impulsiveness (showing self-control or delaying gratification and the ability to endure short-term pain for long-term gain is difficult for those of us who are impulsive), whereas a perfectionist cares enough to ask for help if they need it to accomplish their task and for this reason they were mistakenly identified as procrastinators by professionals.

Perfectionists are more motivated to do something about their failings because they feel worse about whatever they are putting off. Consequently, it is not perfectionism that is the problem but the discrepancy between perfectionist standards and performance (high standards that are unachievable).
The Procrastination Equation

Procrastination happens when we voluntarily put off tasks despite believing ourselves to be worse off for doing so; an irrational delay.

Evolution, Impulsiveness and Procrastination
The limbic system makes decisions effortlessly, spurring action through instinct. Its purview is the here and now, the immediate and the concrete. Our more recently evolved prefrontal cortex is more flexible in its decision making, but also slower and more effortful. It is best at big-picture thinking, abstract concepts, and distant goals. When the limbic system is aroused by immediate sensations of sight, smell, sound, or touch, an increase in impulsive behaviour results, and the now dominates. Also, because the limbic system runs automatically at an incredibly fast rate, and is thus less accessible to consciousness, desires can often come over us inexplicably and unexpectedly. The Procrastination Equation.
Evolution operates through hindsight; that is, it custom fits us to the environment we were in, with no anticipation or prediction...having an impulsive mindset made a lot of sense when we were hunter-gatherers. In the environment where we evolved, we drank when thirsty, ate when hungry, and worked when motivated. Our urges and what was urgent were the same. When we started to anticipate the future, to plan for it, we put ourselves out of step with our own temperament, and had to act not as nature intended. We are all hardwired with a time horizon that is appropriate for a more ancient and uncertain world, a world where food quickly rots, weather suddenly shifts, and property rights have yet to be invented. The result is that we deal with long-term concerns and opportunities with a mind that is more naturally responsive to the present. With paradise lost and civilization found, we must forever struggle with procrastination.


Dopaminergic Society  

The dopaminergic mind hypothesis seeks to explain the difference between modern humans and their hominid relatives by focusing on changes in dopamine. It theorizes that increased levels of dopamine as part of a general physiological adaption due to an increased consumption of meat around 2 million years ago by humans and later enhanced by changes in diet and other environmental and social factors beginning approximately 80,000 years ago explains this difference. 

The high dopamine personality is characterized by high intelligence, a sense of personal destiny, a religious/cosmic preoccupation, an obsession with achieving goals and conquests, and emotional detachment that in many cases leads to ruthlessness and risk-taking mentality. 

High levels of dopamine are proposed to underlie psychological disorders in industrialized societies, accordingly a dopaminergic society is an extremely goal-oriented, fast-paced and even manic society; dopamine is known to speed up our internal clocks and create a preference for novel over unchanging environments. In the same way that high dopamine individuals lack empathy and exhibit a more masculine behavioural style, the dopaminergic society is typified by more conquest, competition and aggression rather than nurturance and communality.

Brain Plasticity 
Neuroplasticity (cortical re-mapping) refers to the ability of the human brain to change as a result of one's experience. That experience can change the brain's physical structure. The brain is 'plastic' and 'malleable'. Plasticity relates to learning by adding or removing, and the functional organization of neural connections or pathways or by adding more neurons (brain cells). This explains the phenomena of phantom limbs, recovery from strokes and improvement for schizophrenics, the reversal of atrophy in the prefrontal cortex and the associated striatum of the limbic system in recovered addicts, learning and increased skills, changing habitual behaviour and healing in some cases of brain injury.

Letting your mind wander is not a waste of time - a different kind of thinking occurs.  When you aren't deliberately trying to solve a problem and you let your mind go where it wants, it gives the brain a chance to stop focusing on immediate tasks, provides more mental space, improves thinking, makes novel connections and brings more mental resources to complex problem-solving, develops ideas and consolidates learning and allows the subconscious to resolve important life problems faster and can even help maintain progress toward long-term goals. 

Professor Kalina Christoff of the University of British Columbia Cognitive Neuroscience of Thought Laboratory, who studies neural and cognitive mechanisms of human thought, reasoning and problem-solving, has made an interesting discovery. She found that two key regions of the brain were both highly active during daydreaming that are rarely active at the same time, working in tandem when we daydream: the default network of the frontal and posterior prefrontal cortex linked to easy, routine mental activity and the executive network associated with high-level, complex problem solving, the lateral prefrontal cortex and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex. Some progressive corporations, businesses and science labs have daydream rooms and are encouraging their employees and scientists to use daydreaming to find solutions and to generate creative ideas.

Mindfulness Meditation 
A state of calm awareness of your present experience including sensations, thoughts, feelings, breathing, and surroundings with an attitude of non-resistance, peace and acceptance describes the state of mindful awareness made possible with meditation. 

Mindfulness meditation engenders faith in the perfection of the moment and allows each experience to be felt fully without our reactive, self-critical and controlling mind.  
Our appointment with life is now. To be mindful is to be truly alive and present. Thich Nhat Hanh  
Mindfulness meditation is very beneficial to decrease stress, boost immune system function, and to alleviate a variety of mental and physical conditions including obsessive-compulsive disorder and anxiety, and to prevent relapse in cases of depression and addiction. 

Paradoxical Relaxation 
Popularized by the Stanford Protocol at Stanford University to treat pelvic pain disorders that also includes self-administered trigger point massage, and stretching. 

Mindfulness is a part of paradoxical relaxation that involves consciously relaxing and being aware of habitual muscular tension and body mechanics (how you use your body when moving); especially in response to chronic pain and anxiety, to aid relaxation. 

It also involves coordination and control of breathing to achieve harmony with heart beat to achieve a positive state of calm. A form of meditation that focuses on the pain and tension, accepts it; doesn't try to relax it, just observes. That is the paradox: the body will relax without trying to relax it, and leads to a reduction or release from pain.

A method of relaxation which uses self-hypnosis invented by German Psychiatrist Johannes Schultz using repeated verbal requests to the body to relax, practiced in three, fifteen minute sessions daily.

Brain Food  
The best diet for the brain is a whole food, natural diet that is rich in omega 3 fatty acids, complex carbohydrates, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals. See HEALTH COACH Nutrition Parts 1-3. All of the basic health habits profoundly affect brain health and function.


Prefrontal Labotomy 
A procedure of psycho-surgery to cure severe emotional problems that surgically severed the connection between the prefrontal cortex and the limbic system of the brain. Patients became passive and lacked all motivation as a result.

Brain Games/ Neurobics 
A variety of challenging word and number games and puzzles to stimulate and exercise the brain, to keep it healthy and to develop prefrontal cortex cognitive function. 

Neurobics also involves doing usual things in unusual ways ie: activities using the opposite hand to your habitual hand. Learning a new language, yoga, walking, creative activities and music are some of the best ways to keep the brain healthy and to improve function. 

Singing stimulates the problem-solving part of the brain; it actually helps to sing about the problem that you are trying to resolve. Try wiggling your toes before getting out of bed in the morning to stimulate brain activity. Learning new physical skills, behaviours and habits, self-development, new experiences and the acquirement of knowledge all contribute to the creation and health of brain cells/neurons and new neural pathways.  

Adrenaline Junkie 
Describes an individual who enjoys dangerous and stressful activities such as extreme sports that release stress hormones and endorphins (pain inhibiting hormones). The danger is often the need to increase risk and danger to achieve the same 'high'. 

Photo Credit, top of page: The first step is aways the most difficult: Yves Lecoq

Quote about habit: Nathaniel Emmons

Photo Credit: Burnout Syndrome: Romain Laurent