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Natural Awakenings Fairfield Cty/Housatonic Valley, CT

Sustaining Healthy Habits: How to Support Lifestyle Transformation

Nov 03, 2014 06:16PM ● By Debra Gibson

“Change is not merely necessary to life – it is life.”
~Alvin Toffler

Whether we choose it or not, our bodies, minds and spiritual natures are changing throughout our lives as we mature, express the fullness of the life force, naturally decline and transform into non-physical energy as we leave this plane of existence. The arc of mortality is a given; but, to a great extent, the trajectory and the quality of our lives are matters of choice. We can choose the path of “disease expectancy” our society has embraced over the past century, with degenerating health and an increase in medications and procedures starting in mid-life or even earlier. Or we can instead follow the lead of cultures throughout the world in which decline occurs only at the very end of a long lifespan, with vitality and health persisting far into the later years.

“The point of power is always in the present moment.”
~Louise Hay

Most people know the outlines of a lifestyle that will create a healthier, more vital life trajectory. But, as many of us have experienced, intellectual knowledge often fails to translate into healthy behaviors. What is necessary to create and sustain authentic lifestyle change is nothing less than a metamorphosis, a kind of death of the old self and emergence of a new one. On the physical plane, cellular turnover for the body as a whole creates a “new self” every seven to 10 years. But in individual tissues and organs, we are transforming far more rapidly than was previously thought: the cells of the liver are renewed every year or so; the red blood cells every three months; and the cells that line the intestine are renewed every several days. This means that our moment-to-moment and day-to-day choices determine whether we regenerate or degenerate our cells, tissues and well-being. Every choice is a point of power to change course and move in the direction of health.

“It’s not that some people have willpower and some don’t.
It’s that some people are ready to change and others are not.”
~James Gordon, M.D.

Commitment to change—and patience with the change process—is integral to any serious program of lifestyle transformation. After the “New Year’s resolution” phase has passed, we are left to face the tedious reality that many steps lie between us and the realization of the vision which first got us started on the path toward a healthier version of ourselves. To realize our vision, we need to accept that behavioral change (which is what lifestyle improvement comes down to) takes time and practice. It’s a process of gradually learning how not to do what we have habitually done, and instead “building muscles” for new life skills—eating, drinking, exercising, sleeping, resting, playing, thinking, working, interacting—that support a healthier, higher functioning life.

“Change is a process,not an event.”
~James O. Prochaska, Ph.D.

Psychotherapist James Prochaska and his colleagues developed a theory of behavior change that has come to be known as the Stages of Change model. Originally applied to the field of substance addiction treatment, it has been shown to be a successful method for many areas of behavior transformation, from bullying prevention to overeating. Prochaska’s Processes of Change, some of which are highlighted below, are fundamental strategies for moving from denial to transformation.

Consciousness-raising: Become aware of and informed about the unhealthy behavior and the positive aspects of healthy behavior. Read books on the subject, research it online, talk to people who have successfully changed the behavior, and get feedback from people in your life about their feelings toward the change you are making.

Self-liberation: Believe in your power to change, and act on that belief.

Helping relationships: Seek out people who support your process of change. People who insist on going it alone often lose momentum and, when difficulties arise, they are less likely to persist and succeed in the desired change. Connect with one or more “buddies” among friends or in your community for mutual encouragement, or with an online or offline support group; work with a counselor or therapist with expertise in the area of your needed behavioral change; or take a class that supports the kind of lifestyle change you are working on, such as a healthy cooking class.

Counter-conditioning: Develop healthy ways of acting and thinking to replace unhealthy habitual thoughts and actions. Take a meditation or mindfulness class and learn how to reduce stress and anxiety with your breathing and awareness instead of with a cigarette, glass of wine, or pint of gelato.

Reinforcement: Promise yourself a reward for healthy behavior and keep your promise to yourself.

Controlling stimuli: Replace reminders for unhealthy behavior with cues for healthy behavior. Clear your kitchen of sweets and junk food; replace them with healthy snacks such as fruit, hummus, carrot sticks and sunflower seeds.

“To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.”
~Carl Jung

As anyone knows who has tried to replace a destructive habit with better behaviors, the best intentions may submit to deeper, more powerful forces in the psyche as we move along the path of real transformation. We come face-to-face with our fears, resistance and with characteristics of ourselves we have tried our best to avoid, the unacknowledged aspects of self that the poet and writer Robert Bly and Swiss psychologist Carl Jung have named the “human shadow”. 

Much as we would like to leave it behind, the shadow is part of us and will follow us everywhere. It can hold a great deal of our power. When we embark on a plan of lifestyle change, it’s the shadow elements that show up to whisper in our ears, urging us to do the very thing we have firmly resolved not to do. This urge to sabotage our highest and healthiest intentions has been termed the “counter intention” by the life coach Joe Vitale. To persist in the work of a successful lifestyle change, we must engage with our counter intentions and turn a light on our shadow selves.  Dialogue processes (such as Voice Dialogue techniques), journaling, group support, and working with a skilled therapist, health coach or supportive healthcare practitioner can give us tools to explore the underpinnings of our resistance and by integrating the awareness we’ve gained, to emerge better equipped to overcome the obstacles to change. 

“One should eat to live, not live to eat.”
~Benjamin Franklin

Just as our psychology can help or hinder our motivation for lifestyle change, so can our biology and biochemistry either support or undermine our commitment. Unhealthy lifestyle behaviors do more than limit our enjoyment of life and put us at risk for chronic disease later; they also skew body/mind systems designed to keep us in balance and on track for wellness. One of the most important strategies for sustaining lifestyle change is to support balanced body function and brain biochemistry. Whether the goal is to put the smoking habit in your past, to lose weight, or to maintain sobriety, proactive tools of healthy eating, exercise, nutritional support and stress reduction ease the transition to healthier behavior, raise the threshold for relapse, and reinforce positive feedback loops for wellness.

“You always pass failure on the way to success.”
~Mickey Rooney

Understanding more about how real change happens allows us to reframe the journey toward our vision from being goal-oriented to becoming process-oriented. It can take us from an unrealistic and perfectionist belief that our progress must be linear to an acceptance that a spiraling upward path (with inevitable downturns along the way) may take longer but is more in keeping with realities of human nature and is ultimately more likely to be successful. It allows us to take our dream out of the world of fantasy and the future and to bring it to earth in the present and, step-by-step and over time, to make it real. 

Debra Gibson, ND, provides strategies for lifestyle change as a naturopathic physician in Ridgefield. She can be reached at 203-431-4443 or at [email protected]. See ad, page 10.