Thursday, June 30, 2011

Habit and the Stages of Change


I have been writing for several weeks now about this mass of electrical activity inside our brains, dendrites and nerve endings, meeting at synapses, passing their spark from one neuron to the next, creating -- what?  A wink, a whisper, a sensation, the next big brainstorm.

Most of these connections could be called, in the widest sense, habits.  By habits, I mean that pathways get used over and over, form patterns, become familiar, channel us to certain outcomes.  Most bypass the cortex, requiring no decision.  Like breathing, smelling, salivating at the cinnamon.
 
Most of the remainder are still automatic.  But with effort, they can be brought to consciousness where the cortex could interfere, and a decision made.  Like blinking.  Or picking up the cookie.

What if you don't want to pick up the cookie?  Okay, you really do want to pick up the cookie.  What if you want to not pick up the cookie anyway? 

How Do You Change A Habit?


You're gonna take more than one step.

Last week, I put some numbers out there, the Wahls diet.  Nine cups a day of vegetables and fruits.  I broke it down for you: 3 cups leafy greens, 3 cups cruciferous veggies, 3 cups intensely colored.

This food plan helped Dr. Terry Wahls reverse her secondary progressive MS and get up out of her wheelchair.  It could help you reduce your symptoms of heart disease, lung disease, asthma, hypertension, depression, obesity, bipolar disorder, diabetes, Alzheimer's or Parkinson's.

If you have, or are tending toward any of these chronic diseases, you have already heard your doctor/mother/spouse tell you that you need to improve your diet.  Dr. Wahl's book, Minding My Mitochondria tells you just how much and why. 

Nine cups a day of vegetables and fruits:

3 cups leafy greens
3 cups cruciferous veggies
3 cups intensely colored

Stages Of Change 

So there is your canyon.  Here are the steps, more than one.  Several, in fact.  The steps are known as the Stages of Change.



The Stages of Change model appears all over the place lately.  This article from the journal American Family Physician uses the Stages to help physicians help their patients, something more effective than Just do it.  A Youtube search yields results for addiction recovery counselors, life coach trainers, weight loss clinics.


Different sites number the stages differently.  Some say Precontemplation is Stage 0.  Some give Relapse its own number.  Some add Transcendence, whatever that is -- said the priest who gets cynical when quasi-religious language gets used for the purposes of self-improvement.  Whatever we are supposed to transcend, evidently it is not our desire to improve ourselves. -- But I digress.


I like this site, which is the source of the graphic above, even if the author does use that word Transcendence that made me twitchy there for a minute before I got back on track.  It works through the stages from the perspective of the person who is making the change, not the person who wants somebody else to change. 


Crossing Canyons/Building Bridges In My Brain 


Dr. Wahls calls it a diet.  I don't diet.  Who wants to DIE-t?   Each chocolate chip cookie left on the plate represents a little death.  A diet is a temporary interruption.  When it ends, you go back to your life.  But there is nothing temporary about the nutritional needs of my mitochondria, without whom there would be no life.


I'm into changing my brain.  In that mass of electrical wiring, some potentially healthy pathways are blocked by the detritus of dead dendrites.  Other destructive pathways are carved into canyons of well-worn automatic responses. 


Changing my brain will take time.  It is taking decades.  It will take at least another blogpost. 


And The Word Became Flesh 


Question: What do the Stages of Change have to do with Prozac Monologues? 


Answer: Words.  The Stages of Change use language to shape the brain.


Language is one kind of pathway from neuron to neuron.  It connects electrical impulses from the autonomic systems, the olfactory nerve, the amygdala, through the hippocampus (memory and emotion) and the anterior cingulate cortex (pattern seeking) and into the frontal cortex (conscious thought).

Language is how all this electrical activity gets turned into meaning.  It is where the brain and the mind become one. 

The Stages of Change include a process of changing our patterned thinking about food.  And thinking is how we move from one stage to the next. 

Dr. Wahls' writes about synergy, how exercise and diet work together to heal her myelin and reduce the symptoms of her MS.  I'm thinking the same process works for changing habits, particularly food habits.  Each new behavior reinforces the preceding thought that moved you to the new stage.  That repeated behavior patterns the thought that will move you to the next stage. 

Meanwhile, what you are eating while you are trying to make any change matters.  Your mitochondria need the right materials to build the dendrites that form the new pathways.  Like lunch for the road crew.

So don't try to skip stages.  And don't skip broccoli.

One of these days I will write my own food autobiography, my trip through these stages.

photo of Women Working at a Bell Telephone Switchboard from the National Archives and Records Administration and in the public domain
photos of Hatherton Canal in Staffordshire by Roger Kidd, Coal Creek Falls by Walter Siegmund, Glen Canyon by Sascha BrückJeff Kubina used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.
Stages of Change graphic was created by Todd Atkins, who placed it in the public domain

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