The power of habits is that they can automate huge sections of our lives, freeing our brains to address other parts of our lives and our surroundings. This is why we can drive to work and spend so much time thinking about that new project that we barely remember making the drive at all. Over years of driving and several laps of doing the same commute, the drive becomes automatic.
This same power is also what makes habits frustrating. Many of us unknowingly forged Habits of Disease. We reach for ice cream when we’re sad. We binge hours of television when we’re stressed. We feel trapped in a cycle of sleepless nights and anxious days.
If any of this sounds like you, it’s not your fault. Few of us are taught how to harness our programming, so we sleepwalk through life and build habits without realizing. If we become aware of our choices and our surroundings, we can awaken our ability to build Habits of Health.
Stop. Challenge. Choose.
When we are not self-aware and something happens, a stimulus enters our brain stem and travels up to the Labrador brain. Your lower brain elicits emotion that creates an immediate action without consulting your thinking brain. This was imperative 10,000 years ago to respond immediately to avoid a threat or act on another survival need. This explains our impulsive nature and why we often get in trouble by doing or saying something without thinking about it.
How do we break this stimulus response that triggers reactive behavior? How do we gain control over our automated brain and subconscious mind?
It is all about becoming fully aware in the moment when the stimulus or event happens and then voluntarily delaying the immediate response from being triggered by engaging our thinking brain.
This is the “Stop” step of Stop. Challenge. Choose. A small pause, as simple as that seems, is enough to interrupt the automation of a habit loop. If we can recognize when we are making a choice, we will immediately have more power over what choice we ultimately make.
Self-awareness is the first key step in changing your previous programming. It will be one of the most important Habits of Health you will learn for daily use and continue to develop along your journey.
There are many ways to work on being more aware, including a focus on your breath and the importance of meditating. For now, I am going to give you some cues your body serves up when it’s about to go “prehistoric” on you:
Anytime you feel that something isn’t quite right, you sense your breathing change, your heart rate increase, a lump forming in your throat, a queasiness sitting in the pit of your stomach – all signals that make you stop before saying or doing anything.
In general, many of our Habits of Disease are responses to negative stimuli in our lives, like an angry boss who makes you want to reach for a drink. If you recognize more of these moments, you will set the stage for making healthier choices in response. If at first doing this in the moment feels too daunting, try reflecting in your journal at the end of the day, noting where you could have stopped but did not.
That too builds awareness that will make those moments easier to recognize when they come around again.
From here, your next step will be to Challenge and to Choose, which you can learn more about in Dr. A’s Habits of Health and by talking with your health coach, but for now, don’t underestimate the power of awareness!