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The anatomy of a habit

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“People form habits and habits form futures. If you do not deliberately form good habits, then unconsciously you will form bad ones”  Albert Gray

I have a terrible admission to make.  An active lifestyle is something I had to learn. It had to become a habit. Since being unwell for the past few weeks I am struggling to get back into a good routine.  I have found my shadow ‘couch potato’ self is alive and well. Why is that?

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Habits are actions that we do so often that they become automatic.

We may have to learn the action the first time. Like cleaning our teeth. Then after a few times the brain decides it no longer has to pay attention and it becomes subconscious.  It’s a habit – whether you like it or not!

And let’s face it, we all know habits can be either good or bad – depending of course if they help us or harm us.  And regardless most habits go unnoticed – even the good ones – unnoticed until someone (like our doctor) or something (like our tight jeans) points them out!

When habits no longer benefit us – or worse – habits that we still may like begin to harm us- like smoking, over eating or drinking – we might begin to think about change.

And that’s when the seemingly intractable nature of habits can frustrate us each time we try to say no.

New neurobiological research is showing us that changing habits is hard because the behaviours we routinely repeat become strong neural pathways in our brain. Like a path worn through the grass that is a short cut home.

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The neuronal pathways ‘fire’ each time we repeat the action. And if we frequently repeat the action in similar circumstance (e.g. having a cigarette with coffee or eat in response to stress) the behaviour and the circumstance link together – what ‘fires together wires together’ so the place, time or emotional states reinforce each other.

Its not all bad news though because our brains can change themselves and we can work to build new habits by practicing it – again and again.

And this is where mindfulness can help: Mindfulness is conscious awareness. Focusing on how we think, eat or respond to emotions is a way to see the habitual patterns we live in. And becoming aware is the first step towards change.

Next formulating an intention or goal helps guide the new actions and provides motivation to keep doing it. Our intention to engage in the new behaviour is the single best predictor of doing it.

So if mindfulness is part of what’s needed what is the other part? Actions! Doing it – not thinking about it – reading about it – talking about it…or writing about about it – but doing it! A new habit needs us to do it – again, again and again.

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Hmm, so I guess that’s my cue – out with my shadow friend and off for a walk.

Just one last thing…if you want to change a habit it helps to remember the benefits.

So what are the benefits of being active? Many.

For me it’s the feeling of ‘well-being’ that comes from moving the body. Also it is the love of ‘being’. The experience of spending time mindfully in nature – the touch of the breeze, the warmth of the sun, the beauty of the scene and the joy of the sounds.  

Ahh…there are just some habits that you hope never take on the true anatomy of a habit – unnoticed, automatic or unconscious. This is because an afternoon walk,  like eating delicious food, brings such a harvest of sensory rewards that you want it to be mindful. Not just a habit – but more. A series of wonderful, mindful moments – lived again, again and again.

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