Creating Change

To effect change, we first have to understand how the status quo developed and what supports it. Usually, unhealthy behaviors or habits arise to reduce some type of stress. We limp to reduce pain in the ankle. We drink to reduce anxiety about work or some type of social situation. We get angry or depressed to decrease how much a person we care about is irritating us. Even though we might logically understand that limping, drinking, or getting angry/depressed are not good long term solutions, our body and brain will continue to automatically use them to reduce pain, anxiety, and feelings about incompetence or whatever it is that started the behavioral adaptation. In fact, the split between the logical brain and the emotional or behavioral brain can be frustrating and even reinforcing to the habit.

Once we understand with our intellect, we have to build motivation with our emotions. This may not be so important if the issue to be changed is a short-term adaptation that is not ingrained. You can use crutches to walk without a limp or benzodiazepines to make a speech without anxiety induced drinking. These are alternative adaptations and are useful when they buy you time to heal your leg or untrain your social anxiety. However, it is essential to be strengthening the long term system to avoid going from one short term adaptation to another. Going through one medication after another or one relationship after another suggests that a more central issue needs to be found and addressed. Long term issues call for energy, planning, and dedicated effort. Motivation and emotions are the source of individual energy for tackling and engaging in any activity. This can even include emotions like anger and fear, although these tend to be more short term motivators. To the degree we need sustained effort to change, we need to use emotions effectively and connect to our deepest drives and meaning.

When motivational energy is sufficient, we are able to start taking action. Appropriate planning is critical so that we can develop a sustained pattern of practice of a new pattern of behavior. Practicing any new pattern is stressful on body and brain, requiring energy. Constant awareness of how much energy we have from our motivation, how long it can last, and how long it takes to rebuild will pace how much we can practice. Practice needs to occur to the point, where a new pattern develops, and the new behavior becomes more automatic and effortless.

Although it is easy for me to describe this process, it can be difficult to execute. Some change is easy because our energy or motivation is high. Age or illness make it difficult, reducing energy and focus. Sometimes our own brains work against us, adapting to circumstances so that we no longer notice the pain or the problem until it builds to overwhelms the short term adaptation. People who cannot tolerate pain are highly motivated to do something about it. People with high pain tolerance tend to get addicted to pain killers. High alcohol tolerance is the greatest risk factor for becoming alcoholic.

To manage tolerance, we need to use external measures because our personal measures are constantly adapting. This can be achieved with the help of an observant partner, a coach, or a counselor. This may also be achieved with the help of measurement tools, diaries, and apps. All of these aids provide important feedback which will help if it is properly tuned and timed.