Escaping Controlling Habits
by Tim Brunson, PhD
Can we escape who we have become? From the moment of our birth our experiences shape who we are. Starting with the genetic makeup, which we inherit from our parents, the people and events that we encounter control the ever evolving wiring in our brain and our physiological reactions. In turn, should these programs include strong chemical responses, we run the risk that the neurological patterns will lead to strong addictions. In very many ways this programming defines who we have become. However, if the results of this process lead to unhappiness or poor health, I would hope that we also have the ability to change.
During the first 26 months of life, the parts of our brains that are already present are almost entirely a mass of disorganized neurons. Our experiences – especially when repeated and/or associated with stimulating responses such as excitement – begin emphasizing some networks and subordinating others. This process, which is called differentiation, is accelerated during that early period. As the brain continues to develop, the differentiation process continues. In fact, to some degree this remains an ongoing process through old age.
Another way of looking at this is the "use it or lose it" concept proposed by the late Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb, PhD. Studying the neuronal development of rats, he noticed that repeated behavior reinforced specific neural networks. This is synonymous with the term learned behavior. He also noted the opposite is true. If a behavior is not continually reinforced, then it becomes subordinated and the network eventually withers.
This is one of the fundamental concepts regarding change. Any behavior pattern has corresponding neural networks and specific patterns of physiological response such as the release of hormones, etc. So, to change any unwanted behavioral pattern it is first necessary to plan for the demise of the recalcitrant network.
To do this, three things must occur. First, the subject must stop reinforcing the unwanted network. Repeating a behavior such as smoking cigarettes continues to reinforce the associated pattern. Even thinking about it – to include worrying or constantly thinking about quitting – also tends make the habit or addiction stronger. Second, the subject must feel that it is safe to change. Feelings of safety and nurturing cause parts of the brain, especially the hypothalamus, to release oxytocin, a neuromodulator that is critical to neurons breaking connections. This is why the support of family members and friends is so important to the change process. And third and probably the most important, an alternative neural network must be installed and strengthened. So in summary, if you choose to get rid of an unwanted behavior pattern, stop thinking about it, get (or imagine) the support of those people who care about you, and install an alternate, more compelling behavior pattern. The analogy that I often use is: "Stop feeding the weeds and plant the flowers that you want so that the weeds have no place to grow."
I know it sounds easy. However, depending on the strength of the pattern – especially if it involves a severe addiction, which almost includes some type of physical stimulation, you may need to see a competent psychologist or medical doctor. Nevertheless, not all habit changes require that level of professional assistance. The first thing that you need to develop is what I call Change Competence. That is, you need to develop the ability to make any type of habit change. Once you nurture this ability concerning small behavior patterns, you can start working on the more difficult ones. Once your Change Competence becomes strong, it too becomes a habit – albeit a very positive one.
Your Change Competence develops when you find that you can begin altering even the smallest part of your rituals. For instance, consider the sequence of activities you normally go through each morning. Or, think about the typical route that you take to school. Or even, ponder the list of tasks that you perform each time that get to work. Find something of low impact that you can do out of sequence. I know that this may sound meaningless, but once you start changing the sequence, you will feel uncomfortable. This is because patterns will by their nature resist change. Even though you may mindlessly occasionally fall back into your old ritual, after about three weeks of persistence, you will be amazed that it will now feel uncomfortable to return back to the old pattern.
Of course, your motivation to change is critical factor. But first, let me give you a word of warning. Your motivation must be positive. By focusing on all of the negative consequences of the old behavior, you are doing nothing but reinforcing what you don't want. Remember: Don't feed the weeds. To get motivated, in your mind build up an image of what you would look like – through your own eyes – feel like, sound like, and even taste and smell like – to achieve the change now. What you are doing is developing stimulating alternative neural networks. Even when you start doing the simplistic Change Competence building exercise just discussed, you envision how you would look, sound, and feel when you have accomplished even that minimal success.
Once you vividly experience the desired change in your mind, see your loved ones and friends recognizing the change and giving you praise and support. This releases more oxytocin in your brain and allows your bad neural networks to start disassembling.
So, what happens to the bad network? A few months ago a client's friend – who also was her attorney – accompanied her during one of my smoking cessation sessions. We talked afterwards. He asked why I did not spend the session harping on her smoking habit and telling her to quit while she was under trance. I again explained to him that you don't get rid of what you don't want by focusing on it. In fact, his friend had done that quite well without my help. It is by focusing on what you do want and getting support that habits melt away. By repeatedly imagining the desired, your new neural networks thicken and the old ones seem to disappear. I call this the Substitution Effect.
What role does hypnosis have in this change process? There are some people that have a high level of Change Competence. And can do it without hypnosis or with minimal help. Just think of actors who easily slip into role after role with ease. They realize that they can become someone different quickly. However, for those people with poor Change Competence or who have habits or addictions that are so extremely imbedded in their brains and bodies that they need professional assistance, hypnosis is an excellent tool. For some people, self-hypnosis or listening to excellent hypnosis CD's and MP3's may be all that they need.
Hypnosis helps a person to overcome the pattern resistance to change. By definition, hypnosis is the process that helps overcome pattern resistance and improve the efficiency of selective thinking. (Selective thinking is another way of saying having the power to choose your destiny.) If you are having difficulty making a change, hypnosis literally shuts off the parts of the brain that resist change and establish stability.
Our mental and physical development could very well shape us in ways that create a life that we wish we did not have. This design is manifested in the rituals, habits, and addictions that we participate in – often rather mindlessly. As humans we have the capacity to change. By firmly establishing a compelling alternative in our mind, we can use our imagination to create a new ideal to which our minds and bodies will entrain. This results in the life of our dreams becoming a reality.
The International Hypnosis Research Institute is a member supported project involving integrative health care specialists from around the world. We provide information and educational resources to clinicians. Dr. Brunson is the author of over 150 self-help and clinical CD's and MP3's.
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