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  • Darren Parker

Neuroplasticity

Changing a habit is hard… but why? If I know something is good or bad for me, shouldn’t that knowledge be enough to change things around in my life?


A lot of people can get really frustrated with themselves when trying to make changes in their life, trying to add new helpful habits and get rid of ones we see as a problem. Yet we often ourselves fall back into old patterns.


Your automatic reaction might be to get angry with yourself, but today I want you to try to have a little more understanding with yourself (usually when we can be more compassionate and supportive of ourselves, change is a heck of a lot easier).


So what is neuroplasticity?


You probably know that you have a brain in your head (it may not always feel this way but trust me, you do) and that brain is made up of cells called neurons. These are the basic building blocks of our brain.




The important part of a neuron for neuroplasticity are the dendrites, the part that looks like tree branches coming out from the cell body. Neurons grow more dendrites to increase connections with the neurons around them when they get used. Whenever we learn something, take in information, and make meaning of the world, dendrites grow and those connections get stronger.


When learning something like the piano, we start off and our brain is just figuring things out. It doesn’t feel natural to move our hands over the keys and we make a lot of errors as we practice. But over time if we keep practicing things become more and more natural and second nature.




My favourite metaphor for this is paths in a forest. If there are a lot of hikers that take a certain path it ends up being very clear and pronounced. There may be some smaller side paths that are less travelled but they aren’t as obvious and clear as a main path.




When you are trying to change a habit, you are basically telling your brain to try one of these side paths. This is harder than the main path. It takes more energy, you might get branches slapping you in the face, and the way forward isn’t always clear (and you may wonder whether anything at the end of this path is worth it).






Meanwhile the other path, the one travelled so often, is second nature. You barely have to think, and if you go on autopilot you will probably suddenly find yourself half way down this path





So which paths in your brain are really easy to take? Many of my clients find themselves automatically engaging in:

  • Worry and rumination

  • Harsh self criticism

  • Perfectionism

  • Avoidance

  • Excessive use or reliance on:

    • Phones

    • Food

    • Games

    • Dating Apps

    • Substances

    • Exercise (yes, even great things like exercise can sometimes tip themselves into excess)


There are a lot of personal reasons why the above can be so prevalent and have strong pathways in our brains, but the good news is that neuroplasticity means that things can change.


So what are my personal takeaways from this?


  1. Please don’t hate yourself for falling into old habits. It's natural and it's automatic (but still worth changing). You may be such an amazing worrier, expert doom scroller, or Olympic level self critic. These come naturally and you've been (unintentionally) working on them for years. Its understandable to fall into them when on autopilot.

  2. Every time you do something differently, that is great! Did you finally make it to that yoga class? Did you give yourself a moment to think instead of react? Did you show yourself the smallest kindness? Then you’ve made a great start and while those pathways in your head are still pretty overgrown, you doing one thing is more than you normally would have. You can continue to build on this.

  3. It takes time for the new pathways to become clearer, and for the old pathways to get overgrown. I know you want change to be instant (who wouldn’t want that?) but having that kind of unrealistic expectation can derail us and make us feel that we have failed before we’ve really gotten started.

  4. Because it takes time, and because sometimes we’re not even sure what the “healthy” pathways might be for us, it can be helpful to have support. A good therapist is great to have, but if you are really lucky, you might have wonderful non-judgmental and supportive friends/family/communities that can help guide you, and remind you to be patient with yourself.

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