Visualizing Habit Change

Last week I explored how I was thinking about a particular circumstance: eating after work. I was thinking UNconsciously one way (food will sooth me) but chose to think Consciously another way (I can wait 15 minutes before eating my planned food). I also decided to think consciously more often by sparking awareness of my thinking at a specific time and place (after work at home).

My conscious thinking will eventually build a new UNconscious habit. Practicing it at each meal is guaranteed to turn it into my new unconscious habit!

Karen Koenig, a behavioral cognitive therapist, developed a wonderful visual to depict this process. In her representation the marble represents a DECISION that needs to be made.

Imagine a tall pile of damp sand with a colorful marble sitting at the peak. A shallow groove is formed when the marble rolls down the pile of sand to land at the bottom. When the marble is again at the top of the pile it will go down the established groove, making the groove deeper, creating a well-established pathway for the marble to follow. Let’s say this groove represents our UNconscious decision of overeating to buffer negative emotions.

Say the marble represents the decision “Do I eat this food now?”

To change the decision from “Let’s eat” → “Let’s NOT eat” you must engage your conscious brain before the unconscious brain makes the decision for you and sends the marble rushing down the established habit pathway.

You can accomplish this with the LEAST AMOUNT OF EFFORT when the marble is at the top of the pile. Catch yourself BEFORE your unconscious brain decides for you.

REMEMBER, OUR BRAINS LIKE EASY SO GIVE IT EASY! We need to do a little effort RIGHT HERE to create a new neurological transmitter cascade pathway for the marble to travel.

Otherwise the marble will just roll down the established groove again. The more often we do this little effort to get the marble to roll down the new groove the deeper the new groove will get. Eventually the groove will be deeper than the one you wanted to avoid and the marble will automatically roll down your new “habit” groove, leaving the other groove to be less “enticing” to the marble!

We want our NEW decision to get to those fast-spiking interneurons FIRST! That means doing some pushing and shoving against the neurotransmitters wanting to start our unconscious habit. This work will feel clunky, wrong, and uncomfortable to our brain. Keep doing it anyway!

For me it FIRST entails being aware I have a decision to make and SECOND sitting with my uncomfortable emotion for 15 minutes. Within 15 minutes I no longer feel jittery, anxious, unfocused, or empty. I’m still feeling “deprived” but I also feel “ridiculous” to be feeding myself when I am not even hungry! Plus, I am feeling “powerful” at accomplishing this win over my unconscious brain!

Physiologically, it took 15 minutes for the neurotransmitters generating the “deprived” emotion to dissipate. Eventually, the “deprived” neurotransmitter pathway will not be stimulated and I will no longer physiologically experience it in my body each day after work. A new “Powerful” neurotransmitter pathway eliciting the “Powerful” feeling will replace it!

So, next time before you want to eat ask yourself one of these simple questions:

• Is my body hungry?
• Is this the only food available to me?
• Am I seeking comfort by eating this?
• Am I really just thirsty?
• When was the last time I ate?
• Did something upsetting just happen to me?
• Am I feeling a negative emotion?
• Am I tired?
• Am I bored?

Your answer will tell you how you are thinking.
Your thinking will make you feel a certain way.
The way you are feeling will make you act a certain way.
The way you act will get you a result AND reinforce your thinking.

When the decision marble is at the top of the sand pile your thinking will put the marble in motion. So think a better way and get that marble going where you want it to go!

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