Changing Habits

Changing Habits

As a self-proclaimed psychology buff (I started reading psychology textbooks at 10 years old for fun), I often think about habits and the patterns that people unknowing integrate in their lives.  Why are some people prone to unhealthy habits and addictive behaviors, while others are not?  What causes some people to change and others to become stagnant?  What makes something healthy or unhealthy?  Could something that is generally considered healthy be unhealthy?  Most importantly, how can we change unhealthy behaviors to healthy habits?

Take, for instance, morning coffee.  Everyday, I see a long line of people outside a popular coffee establishment on my way to work.  Why waste that precious morning time?  I know not to approach one of my coworkers before 10 AM in the morning because she hasn’t yet had her coffee.  Whether coffee itself is healthy or not is controversial, but difficulty functioning without coffee certainly seems unhealthy, right?  What about something that seems healthy like working out?  Could overworking out be unhealthy?  For argument’s sake, let’s just say that almost anything can be healthy or unhealthy.  However, it is 1) the way we approach it, 2) how much we rely on it, and 3) how much it affects our ability to function everyday with normal tasks that can indicate whether or not a habit is healthy unhealthy.

Once a habit has been identified an unhealthy, how can it be changed?  In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that people develop habits because they have an unmet need (or cue), which triggers the brain to start a routine to attain a reward.  This is known as the habit loop.  After a few times of going through the loop, the brain remembers the loop and automatically puts it into action.

thehabitloop

For example, it’s 3:30 PM at your new job and you are feeling a bit restless, but don’t know anyone there.  Your coworker asks you to take a coffee break.  Although you may not feel like having coffee, you go anyway for the company and office gossip and indulge in a double latte.  You come back satisfied.  It’s now 12:23 AM as you stare at the alarm clock and you cannot sleep.  You finally doze off at 2:18 AM.  The next day, you feel a bit groggy.  At lunchtime, however, you start to drag and feel bored again.  At 3:00 PM, your coworker asks you to take a break and you head out for a coffee break with him.  This is how a habit loop works.  Your need for socialization led you to accept your coworker’s invitation to squelch the boredom (the cue) and satisfy your need to socialize (the reward). Although the need to socialize is not unhealthy in itself, taking a mid-afternoon coffee break is unhealthy if it keeps you up at night and affects your productivity the next day.  Eventually, the cue and reward become so intertwined that you associate your need for socialization with the coffee break.  The habit is formed.

Changing habits is difficult if: 1) you have not identified the true need or 2) there is no perceived reward in a new routine.  If the new routine involves deprivation, the mind and body become acutely aware that the need is not being met and that there is no reward.  For instance, when most people try to quit smoking or eating unhealthy foods, they may not necessarily know what they are really seeking and often feel deprived when the new routine does not satisfy the need.

According to Duhigg, the most effective way to change a habit is not to break it, but to replace the old habit loop with a new habit loop.  This also explains why many people turn to another addiction after getting over one because they’ve simply replaced an old (unhealthy) routine with a new (unhealthy) routine.  This is where first identifying an unhealthy vs. a healthy routine becomes essential.

The steps to changing an unhealthy habit to a healthy one are:

  1. Identify the unhealthy habit and the harm it is causing.
  2. Identify the need that the habit is satisfying.
  3. Find a different routine that would satisfy the need without the harm.
  4. Squeeze out the old routine by replacing it with a new routine.
  5. Repeat the new routine until the healthy habit is formed.

A change does not need to involve a major change.  Start small to build up motivation.  Often, small changes lead to big benefits.  The best part about making that small change is that it can lead to bigger and better changes that seemed impossible to accomplish before.

Moderation

Cheries-Word-Moderation-1024x538

“Everything in moderation.”  Indeed, one of our founding fathers, Benjamin Franklin, expounded on the virtues of moderation.  But what does “moderation” really mean?

Heart disease runs in my family and everyday, I am reminded of, saddened, and humbled by its ramifications.  We may believe we’re doing everything right–eating a balanced diet and working out–but there is still more confusion and contradicting expert opinions than clear and hard evidence.   How much is related to genetics vs. diet and lifestyle is still unknown.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to surmise what a moderate level of a substance or activity when it comes to certain ingredients in our food supply.

When I lived in New York City, I went to a sushi restaurant in downtown Manhattan with some friends, one of whom claimed that sushi is “healthy” and then emphatically stated, “Everything in moderation.”  I am aware that most restaurants likely are using genetically modified organisms (GMO) and artificial ingredients in their food.  At sushi restaurants, I am especially concerned about GMO salmon, GMO soy-based products, and artificial flavors or colors.  Not to mention that I am even more leery of the freshness and quality of raw fish.  There has also been some news about restaurants swapping tuna and salmon for lower-quality, cheap fish (and a lot of these fish have been farm-raised on GMO feed and antibiotics).  So, while I ate my spicy tuna roll without a peep for the sake of being social, a very small part of my brain was freaking out and quietly screaming, “How can GMO salmon be okay in moderation?  Why don’t people know what is in their food? What is moderation?”

When it comes to most restaurant items, unless the restaurant specifies otherwise, there is no way to determine the quality of the food and whether it has GMOs or artificial ingredients.  These ingredients have been linked to heart disease, cancer and obesity and have zero nutritional value.*  However, there is still much debate on the (1) effect and (2) amount of these ingredients that contribute to disease.

Thus, a “moderate” amount of these ingredients in our diet cannot be reasonably estimated.  In other words, a safe level of consumption (if any) cannot be determined with the current data and research.  We cannot say with any level of certainty that any amount of GMO and artificial ingredients are safe once a week, once a month or once a year.  Given the lack of evidence and varying opinions, my personal stance is that the consumption of any ingredients that may be linked to harm and have no nutritional value is not wise, even in moderation (whatever that entails).

I am not saying “don’t go to restaurants” or “don’t eat sushi.”  I am saying that when it comes to consuming GMO and artificial ingredients (whether in sushi, soda or in any other processed foods), “moderation” is not an excuse.  Perhaps “ignorance is bliss” is a more accurate philosophy because it is up to each individual to make a decision about how much risk is acceptable in keeping ourselves willfully blind of our dietary choices.

Even if a particular food has health benefits or some nutritional content, moderation is different for each person.  One may be able to consume two cups of coffee a day, while another may be unable to sleep at night after consuming half a cup in the morning.  One may be able to enjoy a glass of red wine every night with dinner, but half a glass of wine may be too much for another.

Moderation, it seems, is a matter of individual perspective.  However, if we really wanted to be honest with ourselves, “everything in moderation” is often a guise for masking our own willful ignorance.

*See http://responsibletechnology.org/doctors-warn/, http://enhs.umn.edu/current/5103/gm/harmful.html; but see https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonentine/2014/09/17/the-debate-about-gmo-safety-is-over-thanks-to-a-new-trillion-meal-study/#18151f9c8a63; http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2015/07/are_gmos_safe_yes_the_case_against_them_is_full_of_fraud_lies_and_errors.html

All you need to do is show up

show-up

I grew up somewhat shy and sheltered. In my sophomore year of college, I remember telling a friend that I was really nervous about going to a neighbor’s house party. Not only was I not a drinker, but I hadn’t been to a party where other kids my age were drinking. I had no idea how to act or what to say. I thought I would eventually do something “wrong,” and give myself away and everyone would know that I was a big weirdo. The advice I got was one of the best I’ve received: “Most people are so concerned with themselves and their own issues that they aren’t looking at or thinking of you. And these guys will probably be so drunk that they’ll act stupid themselves. But no one cares! Just go, relax and don’t worry.” And that’s exactly what I did. I don’t remember if I had a drink (probably just held a cup of beer in my hand), but I didn’t feel like I needed to drink in order to fit in.

A year later, I was now regularly going to these college parties where alcohol flowed easily. At one party, where I probably had little, if anything, to drink, I was shocked when the next day, one of the guys at the party said to me “Shilpa, I didn’t know you were so cool! You came and hung out!” I thought it was a bit funny—that’s all it takes to be considered cool? Just go and hang out?!  (Granted, he drank a bit more than me, so I am not sure what exactly he remembered). That was another lesson I learned: Sometimes, you just have to show up. That’s all it takes. You don’t have to be or do anything! And if you’re drinking to the point of losing yourself, then are you really showing up?

Those two incidents positively influenced the way I interact with alcohol. However, there were times in my life when I felt pressured to drink (for example, in the workplace happy-hour setting) or when I felt uncomfortable saying I didn’t want to drink because I didn’t want others to think I was a boring, goody-two-shoes. As I became more mindful of what I wanted and what made me truly happy, those fears wore off.  If someone has a problem with me not drinking (or not drinking as much), it is their problem. I am just as comfortable drinking water at a bar as I am drinking wine with dinner. I feel in control of, and comfortable with, how much I drink, when and where. I am okay with saying I don’t like the taste of beer. I am okay with saying I like champagne, but I know more than one glass will give me a headache (I am a lightweight and proud of it). I am okay with saying that I don’t want to go out for a drink, but would prefer tea or coffee or a bite to eat instead. For the most part, people are receptive and have even told me that they find my stance refreshing.

Note: I am not saying don’t ever drink. I am saying that it may be helpful to be more mindful of why you’re drinking and whether you are really enjoying yourself and doing it responsibly.

Sometimes, people pressure others to drink because they think they should do it (it may be a pattern for them, a way to make conversation, or perhaps because they feel awkward themselves), but for the most part, no one cares whether you are drinking. Because most people care more about themselves than about you. What matters most is how it makes you feel and what you want to do.  You don’t have to do or be anything for anyone else. You don’t have to be the most witty, interesting, charming or funny person at the party. That is a lot of pressure to put on yourself. It’s okay to fit out. It’s okay to feel any good, bad, weird or awkward emotions that arise in social settings. Everyone feels a little bit awkward sometimes.  All you need to be is your authentic self and show up.

Organic, Local and GMOs! Oh, my!

We live in a world of options and much confusion.  From big life-changing decisions (should I buy that house?) to smaller, everyday decisions (what shoes should I wear today?).

When it comes to eating, we may think about what to eat, when to eat, and whether we want to eat healthy or indulge.  However, there is a vast array of conflicting information in mass and social media about the food we eat.  Should everyone eat organic?  What are GMOs?  What’s the deal with the local food movement?

Use this infographic as a guide to clean and healthy eating.

cleaneatingguide

Note: This is a simple and general guide on clean and healthy eating.  Individual needs and concerns should be taken into account.  Consult with your doctor, a health coach and use your judgment to decide what works for you.

Changing Habits

I often think about habits and the patterns that people subconsciously weave in their lives.  Why are some people prone to unhealthy habits and addictive behaviors while others are not?  What causes some people to change and others to become stagnant?  What makes something healthy or unhealthy?  Could something that is generally considered healthy be unhealthy?  Most importantly, how can we change unhealthy behaviors to healthy habits?

Take, for instance, morning coffee.  Everyday, I see a long line of people outside a popular coffee establishment on my way to work.  Why waste that precious morning time?  I know not to approach one of my coworkers before 10 AM in the morning because she hasn’t yet had her coffee.  Whether coffee itself is healthy or not is controversial, but difficulty functioning without coffee certainly seems unhealthy, right?  What about something that seems healthy like working out?  Could over-working out be unhealthy?  For argument’s sake, let’s just say that almost anything can be healthy or unhealthy.  However, it is 1) the way we approach it, 2) how much we rely on it, and 3) how much it affects our ability to function everyday with normal tasks that can indicate whether or not a habit is healthy unhealthy.

Once a habit has been identified an unhealthy, how can it be changed?

In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg writes that people develop habits because they have an unmet need (or cue), which triggers the brain to start a routine to attain a reward.  This is known as the habit loop.  After a few times of going through the loop, the brain remembers the loop and automatically puts it into action.

thehabitloop

For example, it’s 3:30 PM at your new job and you are feeling a bit restless, but don’t know anyone there.  Your coworker asks you to take a coffee break.  Although you may not feel like having coffee, you go anyway for the company and office gossip and indulge in a double latte.  You come back satisfied.  It’s now 12:23 AM as you stare at the alarm clock and you cannot sleep.  You finally doze off at 2:18 AM.  The next day, you feel a bit groggy.  At lunchtime, however, you start to drag and feel bored again.  At 3:00 PM, your coworker asks you to take a break and you head out for a coffee break with him.  This is how a habit loop works.  Your need for socialization led you to accept your coworker’s invitation to squelch the boredom (the cue) and satisfy your need to socialize (the reward). Although the need to socialize is not unhealthy in itself, taking a mid-afternoon coffee break is unhealthy if it keeps you up at night and affects your productivity the next day.  Eventually, the cue and reward become so intertwined (not taking into account any addictive quality of certain substances) that you associate your need for socialization with that routine.  The habit is formed.

Breaking a bad habit is almost impossible if: 1) you have not identified the true need or 2) there is no perceived reward in a new routine.  If the new routine involves deprivation, the mind and body become acutely aware that the need is not being met and that there is no reward.  For instance, when people try to quit smoking or stop eating unhealthy foods, they may not necessarily know what they are really seeking and often feel deprived when the new routine does not satisfy the need. According to Duhigg, the most effective way to change a habit is not to break it, but to replace the old habit loop with a new habit loop.  This also explains why many people turn to another addiction after getting over one because they’ve simply replaced an old (unhealthy) routine with a new (unhealthy) routine.  This is where first identifying an unhealthy vs. a healthy routine becomes essential. The steps to changing an unhealthy habit to a healthy one are:

  1. Identify the unhealthy habit and the harm it is causing.
  2. Identify the need / cue that the habit is satisfying.
  3. Find a different routine that would satisfy the need without the harm.
  4. Squeeze out the old routine by replacing it with a new cue and routine that still produces a desired reward.
  5. Repeat the new cue-routine-reward loop until the new healthy habit is formed.

A change does not need to involve a major change.  Start small to build motivation.  Often, small changes lead to big benefits.  The best part about making that small change is that it can lead to bigger and better changes that seemed impossible to accomplish before.