A new year, a new me! That’s the most popular saying for this time of year. When New Year’s comes around, every year we all begin making plans to have a “good” new year, by making New Years resolutions. One of the beauties about the New Year is that it gives us an opportunity to start over. To reboot in a sense, and switch out what isn’t working for something that will. New Years brings hope and with this hope a new attitude.
Yet despite our good intentions for the new year, as the weeks go by, we start to fall behind on the goals we have set for ourselves. Whether it’s going to the gym daily, cutting down on spending, or looking for a new job we all set the intention to improve, only to find ourselves skipping one day, then another, until we stop all together.
But this year things will be different. You are determined to reach your goals in 2019. In order to help assist you on your journey, I wanted to talk about why it’s so hard to change and give you steps on how you can tackle this.
In The Beginnings…Brain Development
One of the fundamental reasons why it’s so hard to change has to do with the brain. The brain likes to conserve energy, which it does by placing things into categories. New information comes in, gets processed, and is then placed in a category based on past experiences. When new information comes in, the brain treats this information as novel, neither good nor bad, but it does slightly raise the alarm bells. Not enough to trigger the Stress Response System but enough to make us acutely aware of what’s going on around and inside of us.
Sometimes this experience of alarm, even if small, produces symptoms of anxiety which then signal to the brain threat. When threat is activated then the brain sends signals to take action to protect you. This function is the Stress Response System and there are three types of activation. Two of which are movement based, fight and flight, while the third immobilizes you, freeze.
The Stress Response System-Fight, Flight, or Freeze
Fight and flight are activated when your brain, in light speed, determines that you can either get away from (out run) or confront (overpower) the threat. When activated, hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline course through your veins and you get a burst of energy and your focus narrows.
On the other hand freeze gets activated when movement is a threat to your survival, meaning that the best chance for survival/protection is to not move. Think of an animal who plays dead, they do not move and literally look frozen. Inside your body, your heart rate slows and you get a flood of feel good emotions that act almost like a sedative. In the wild this response basically prepares you for a painless death.
Now I want to be clear that you have absolutely no control over which system gets activated when faced with threat if your survival, it just happens to fast and is largely instinctual. So for my sexual abuse and assault survivors I want you to know that your body, when it froze, did what it believed was the right thing to optimize your survival and you could not control this reaction. So forgive yourself and your body (you can watch my YouTube video about healing and forgiving yourself here)
Brain, Stress Response System, and Change
So what does all this have to do with change and the new year?
You see the thing about our wonderful, brilliant, and complex brains is that it is responsible for so many things and does it’s job pretty effectively. In order to maximize its effectiveness, it places things in categories, based on past experiences and to conserve energy it constantly takes in new information and places it in a category. The big job it has, is to determine whether something is a threat or something is safe. When things are safe you feel calm and relaxed. But when threat is signaled, you feel afraid and anxious. What activates safe vs not safe is based on those past experiences that are placed in different categories. This is done with a link between the external world (taken in through your five senses) and what’s happening inside your body (your breathing, your temperature, your heart rate, etc)
For example: if your loving and attuned mother, who always smelled like White Diamonds perfume would rub your back while rocking you when you were scared, sad, or tired, then placed in the category of safe, loving and nurturing would be things that remind you of your mother. Such as her perfume, rocking, or a soft touch on your back.
On the other hand if your mother was cruel, constantly criticized you, and made you feel like you were not good enough, and would sometimes hit you when you did something wrong and she also happened to wear White Diamonds perfume, then placed in the category of unsafe would be the smell of white diamonds, hands moving too fast, and criticism.
Self Protection Is Vital
Remember the brain wants to protect you, so by placing these early experiences in different categories it can easily recognize when threats are coming at you even if they look just a little bit different. Things get stored and categorized based on repetitions which create predictability.
The reason change is so hard is because change acts as a stressor. Think about it. Your brain wants to be safe. Predictability=safety. Even if the predictability is toxic, for your brain the predictability is familiar. It knows just what to do in that situation. But when you change the game up, it doesn’t know what to do. It’s unfamiliar with this new thing and thus it is treated like a threat, with alarm bells and everything.
You also must remember, that there is also the reward center in your brain that comes into play. So now your not just talking about safety vs threat but also what feels good and what doesn’t. When we feel threatened we seek out safety. Once in a safe place we want to feel better, get rid of what is making us feel bad, and so we turn to what makes us feel good. Most things are not inherently good or bad, but it’s the way in which we use or overuse them, that can be unhealthy or self destructive.
The 3 Steps To Achieve Your New Year’s Resolution Goals
So as your gearing up to hit your goals in 2019 keep in mind that your brain might see this change as a threat and stop you from achieving those goals by signaling to the Stress Response System that a threat is near. The reward system may join in the fun and reward your self sabotaging behaviors in order to help alleviate your anxieties (make you feel better). So take a look at the 3 steps below to get started:
Step #1: create a detailed plan, write it out, and keep it somewhere that’s easily accessible. This detailed plan should not only list what your goals are and how you plan to accomplish them but they should also answer these three questions:
A) What is it that you are hoping to accomplish with these goals?
B) Why did you pick these in particular?
C) How will things be different once you have achieved them?
Step #2: take a look at past, self sabotaging behaviors and create a plan on what to do when you start to notice them creeping back in. We all have our go to patterns of self sabotage that creep in when we become overwhelmed with anxiety and fear. For some it’s avoidant behaviors such as binge watching tv shows, impulse behaviors like overspending, or they are numbing behaviors such as drinking alcohol. Whatever it is, the behaviors we engage in to keep the pain away are only a stop gap and in fact tend to push us further behind in whatever it is we should have been doing before engaging in the self sabotaging act. By knowing what your go to is, you can create a plan for alternative methods of coping with the pain that aren’t self sabotaging. For example: If it’s going to the gym daily, then making sure that the night before you pack your bag and put it in your car. Setting the alarm or multiple alarms. Having a gym partner to hold you accountable. Setting up a self reward system every time you go. Etc. Also keep in mind, especially with the gym, that people often compare themselves to others. On the treadmill you may see the person next to running 12 miles when you can barely do 1. Create affirmations or just a positive statement to remind yourself that everyone is on their own journey and you have your own goals. Maybe one day you will run 12 or maybe it will be more or less. The point is the person next to you didn’t just spring out and run 12 miles, it took a lot of hard work and discipline so you can be just as dedicated and disciplined to hitting your goals as well.
Step #3: practice grounding techniques. Grounding techniques or deep breathing exercises are both ways in which you are slowing down your brain and its processes when it becomes activated. Remember that when the Stress Response System is activated the access to your Cortex is shut down and you act (or react) on impulse. By using these grounding techniques and deep breathing exercises, you’re giving yourself time to get the cortex online where it can tell the lower parts that you are safe, this is the present, and basically talk it down from fear to calm.
Bonus step: I am a firm believer in keeping progress or tracking how you are doing. As you start on your new endeavor have a journal where you can track your progress. In it write all your thoughts and feelings down, whether you accomplished your goal or didn’t for the day. Pay special attention to how you felt and what you thought after you either completed your activity for that day or didn’t. Did it impact any other parts of your life? Get it all out.
Change is hard and keeping New Years Resolutions seems impossible. But if your goals are important to you then you can use the 3 steps above to calm your Stress Response System down and take action. By having a detailed plan to address self sabotaging behaviors and the use of grounding techniques you will on your way to achieving your New Years Resolution Goals.
Want to learn how to properly use grounding techniques to eliminate trauma reactions? Ready to learn how to love and accept yourself using affirmations and other self esteem building tools? If you liked these three tips and your looking for more resources on your healing journey, check out the: Reclaim Your Power Guidebook. This self help book provides you with some wonderful tools to help you heal as a trauma survivor. The tools in this book discuss the ways in which trauma reactions are overly sensitive to triggers which cause you to feel out of control and alone. The guidebook gives you tools to manage and control these trauma reactions, effectively rewiring your brain. Finally the last part of the book address identity and self-esteem, which will help you tackle your feelings of shame. So click here to download your copy today.
These are just a few strategies and steps and recommendations! I hope you found this post helpful! I’d love to hear from you in the comment section!
Thank you for taking the time to read. Remember sharing is caring, so share if you found this helpful!
Until we connect again,