7 ways to break bad habits, and lead a happy and stress-free life
Do you find it difficult to break bad habit or at the mercy of a negative thinking pattern you can’t change? Think you’re destined to respond the same way emotionally to the same old triggers? Do you look at others who seem calm and in control with awe, and wonder if you can ever get there?
With a little mind training it is possible to rewire the brain’s associations and emotional responses, to improve mental wellbeing and quality of life.
Experience changes the structure of our brain
The adult brain is capable of physical change in response to stimuli, this concept is known as neuroplasticity. Our brain re-organises itself, both physically and functionally, throughout our life due to our environment, behaviour, thinking, and emotions. Science has confirmed this incredible morphing ability of the brain with the help of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).
How habits form, and why they are hard to break
Our brain is made up of a network of billions of neurons or nerve cells, whose main function is to transmit information. The brain receives information from the outside world through our five senses, sight, sound, smell, taste and touch, in the form of electric signals. The electric signals then travel to neurons, which then fire in turn to send signals to other neurons, through connections known as synapses. These signals could be sent to motor neurons to initiate an action like a muscle movement, or could be sent to a different part of the brain for information processing.
Basically the network of neurons determines the flow of information through our body. When we learn something new, we form new pathways in the brain. Each new lesson has the potential to connect new neurons and change our brain’s default mode of operation, and how we respond. Habitual behaviour or responses strengthen the connections that already exist. In fact in case of habits, the neurons only fire at the beginning and end of every task, and send our brain into auto-pilot mode in between, like when we brush our teeth. This is why habits are hard to break!
How can we break bad habits and change our way of responding?
Neuroplasticity makes our brains resilient, but at the same time also vulnerable to outside and internal, usually unconscious, influences. It is how all learning takes place, whether its learning a new language or an instrument. It also may be the cause of, or help overcome negative thinking patterns and mental disorders like depression and anxiety.
As Christopher Bergland, world class endurance athlete, coach and author, notes, “One could speculate that this process opens up the possibility to reinvent yourself and move away from the status quo or to overcome past traumatic events that evoke anxiety and stress. Hardwired fear-based memories often lead to avoidance behaviors that can hold you back from living your life to the fullest.”
Bach flower remedies like Honeysuckle, Star of Bethlehem, Walnut, Agrimony, Clematis, Wild Rose, Mimulus, Aspen, Rock Rose and Crisis Remedy can assist us in coping with and changing fear based traumatic memories.
So how can we use neuroplasticity to break bad habits and lead stress-free and happy lives? Here are 7 ways:
1) Understanding our brain’s plasticity
The first step would be to understand how our brain works and its ability to change its structure and function in response to our thinking and experience. When we are alert, engaged and motivated the brain releases the neuro-chemicals necessary to enable brain change. Bach Remedies like Wild Rose and Clematis can help us in this effort.
The initial changes are temporary, and become a habit based on how our brain judges them and with what intensity – fascinating or distressing experiences bring about a greater change than mundane ones. The more we repeat an experience, the stronger the associations get. Our internal representation of facts from our memory, and our perceptions, are also enough to change the brain, and this may happen without us experiencing anything on the outside.
Memory guides and controls most of learning. As we learn something new, we register the good attempts and discard the not so good ones, and we progressively improve. Each time the brain strengthens a connection to advance our mastery of a skill, it also weakens other connections of neurons that weren’t used at that precise moment, erasing irrelevant information interfering with brain activity.
Brain plasticity is what helps the brain recover from brain events like strokes and traumatic brain injuries.
2) Forming habits – neurons that fire together, wire together!
When certain neurons keep firing at the same time, they eventually develop a physical connection and get physically associated too. It’s called experience-dependent plasticity, which is basically like repeating a good habit. A study cited by Berkeley’s Greater Good Institute studied the brains of London cab drivers, who’d had to memorize the city’s layout by heart. The study found that these cab drivers had very thick connections in their visual-spatial cortex. If we practice something consistently we’re likely to alter the neuron associations in our brain, so that we form new better habits.
Bach Remedies like Scleranthus help us to focus, be consistent and have an unwavering mind.
3) Manage stress, it makes habits fixed
Both positive and negative emotions rewire the brain. A study conducted in 2013 found that distressing situations prompt the brain to rewire its connections to the olfactory (smell) centres, creating negative associations to smells that are otherwise neutral. Yes, that is why your ex-boyfriend’s cologne which previously smelt divine, now smells disgusting!
Studies have proven that stress entrenches habits. In 2009 a study was conducted with a group of rats under chronic stress. The study found that under stress the rats were more likely to rely on automatic decisions rather than well thought through, conscious, ones. The brain composition also changed to reflect this. The scientists have linked this to brain energy. In times of serious stress the brain will take the easiest path, and expend as little energy as possible on making decisions, so it’ll revert to habits.
The remedy Olive helps energise and rejuvenate both the mind and the body. We can take the help of remedies like Scleranthus, Cerato or Wild Oat when we are unable to deliberate and take decisions when chronically stressed. One can also consider taking the Five Flower Remedy initially.
4) Train the brain
An interesting study in 2016 stated that training the brain through certain tasks helps rewire even the emotional centres of the brain to a certain extent. The study involved asking the participants to focus on one thing and ignore other irrelevant information – they had to say which direction an arrow was pointing in, while ignoring the other arrows on both sides of it. People who had undergone intense arrow tests had a lower amount of activation in the amygdala, which means lower response to fear, less anxiety and better emotional regulation. The brain got better focusing and at ignoring negative emotions.
Remedies like Scleranthus and Cerato can help us to focus better, and ignore irrelevant or negative information.
5) Committing to building a habit
Motivation helps us get started, but once the motivation wave subsides, it gets harder to continue working consistently towards our goal of building a new habit. When consistency is the problem, it is far better to commit to practicing for just 5 minutes or less a day and succeed at it, and then slowly add to the habit.
Flower remedies like Wild Rose, Hornbeam, Gentian, Gorse, Mustard, Olive, Scleranthus and Clematis would help strengthen our resolve and interest to help ourselves build new habits.
Finding an accountability partner helps us stick to tasks when motivation dwindles. When we are accountable to someone or a group of people for doing what we said we would do, we can easily get stuff done because we engage the power of social expectations.
6)New experiences and challenging the brain
Learning a language or instrument, travelling to new destinations, reading fiction, creating art and learning a new dance routine have all been linked to improving the brain’s plasticity.
Challenging the brain with memory tasks and games, brain activities like crosswords and sudoku and learning a new subject, specially a large complex subject help build new neural networks and keep the brain young.
7) Exercise, meditation and sleep
Mild to moderate exercise and practicing mindfulness and meditation help keep the brain healthy. Recent findings suggest that sleep plays a housekeeping role that removes toxins in our brain that build up while we are awake. Starving the body of sleep robs neurons of the ability to function properly.
To help one sleep one can take the appropriate Flower Remedies at bedtime depending on what keeps you awake. Remedies like the Night Remedy can be tried to get a good nights sleep. The Five Flower Remedy and White Chestnut can help calm you during meditation. Crab Apple is another important remedy that can be considered here to help clear the system of mental toxins released by the brain.
Olive Tree promotes wellbeing through healing with and learning Bach Flower Remedies. As practitioners of alternative medicine our aim is to enhance wellness and healing by restoring the mind and body harmony.
Our services include Bach Flower Therapy consultation (at our centre in New Delhi, and online worldwide) and a Bach Centre UK certified short distance learning programme which can be taken from any place in India and will empower you to heal your family and friends and also to start a fulfilling career in alternative medicine. We also sell Bach flower essences. To know more call us on 9717146337 or write to us on firstname.lastname@example.org.