co-written by Sandee Nebel, LMHC
and Liz Strong, Registered Mental Health Counselor Intern
“Why do I continue to make unhealthy choices?”
This is one of most common concerns heard in therapy. Clients come in baffled by the fact that they keep repeating old behavior they thought they had changed already or that they should “know better”.
The bad news is that we’re actually biologically wired to stay stuck – to keep repeating our mistakes time and again. The good news is that we can rewire ourselves.
Let’s look more closely at that wiring, with Louis Cozolino, PhD, a professor of psychology at PepperdineUniversity. In his article “It’s a Jungle in There” (Psychotherapy Networker, September/October 2008), Cozolino explains that it only takes 100 milliseconds for the emotional part of our brain (the amygdala), to react to an event.
However, it takes the rational part of our brain (the cerebral cortex), responsible for thought, understanding, and consciousness, 500-600 milliseconds to process that same event and bring it into our awareness.
So even though we decide, commit and vow to do it differently next time, when the event comes around again our amygdala works so quickly that our old default responses are set into motion before our cerebral cortex can catch up and apply any of the new behaviors that we want to apply.
That may sound hopeless, but it’s not. Research in the field of neuroscience is teaching us that we CAN change our brain and replace these old default responses. But we can’t usually do it alone. As Einstein said, “You cannot solve a problem from the same consciousness that created it. You must learn to see the world anew.”
Therapy and 12-step programs are just two of the places you can go for help, and some of the techniques you’ll use are to:
Examine your thoughts – Known as cognitive behavior therapy, you’ll investigate the thoughts that are behind your default responses, and challenge them as false and unhealthy ideas from your past. Then you can develop new thoughts and responses that are healthy and accurate and fit who you want to be today.
Practice the new response – Known as guided imagery, you’ll practice the new behavior or response, playing it out in your mind as if the entire event is happening. Eventually, this will become your new default response, even at the emotional (amygdala) level.
Change is never easy, and sometimes we take a few steps forward and then another couple back – it’s not always a straightforward progression. But you can begin with baby steps and ask for help.
Baby steps towards change
- Journaling – By writing, you can start to identify and process some of the underlying thoughts that lead to your automatic responses. Refer to our journal writing resource (you can download a copy from our website). You can also take a look at The Feeling Good Handbook, by David D. Burns, one of the creators of cognitive therapy. He provides journaling guidelines and exercises that will help you with this process.
- De-cluttering – Out with the old, in with the new. When you address any clutter in your physical world – piles of paper, unfinished projects, broken or unusable items, etc. – it will have an amazing effect on your emotional and mental world as well. You may feel a release, an opening or shift.
- Joining in – By joining a group of other people who are working towards change, you can motivate, learn from and inspire each other. Plus, you’ll have the benefit of a group leader who can provide guidance, support and expertise with your specific issues.