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New Habits: How to Form New Neural Pathways

Something we all want to do is change our unhelpful habits to new ones.

"I don't like ruminating on catastrophic events but I can't help it."

"I can't help it, whenever he asks me a question that he should know the answer to, I roll my eyes. I know it's not helpful but it's ingrained in me."

"I tend to indulge in emotional eating after a stressful day. I don't want to because it's bad for me but I can't seem to stop."

Sometimes we feel stuck with the mental habits that we have because they feel so deeply ingrained in us. And often they are a maladaptive behavior fortified through adverse childhood events. You roll your eyes as a defense mechanism against emotional vulnerability. You ruminate because you fear if you don't, something bad will happen that you didn't anticipate and you won't be ready for it. Habits of the mind seem harder to change than behavioral habits because they are internal. Many of my clients struggle to feel that they can change how they think because it happens before they can stop themselves. They feel that their thoughts just "are" and they are powerless to change them.

The good news is that you can in fact change mental habits, the same way you change behavioral habits. Our brains are equipped with neuroplasticity, the ability to change and adapt in response to stimuli. Imagine two paths in the forest - one well-tread, the other faint and barely visible. If you continue to tread the obvious path, that path will only become clearer and over time as the other path becomes overgrown and lost. However, if you choose to walk the path less traveled you may trip over vines and branches and rocks. But travel that path hundreds of times and it will become broader, the obstacles will move aside as you kick them, and the underbrush will eventually give way to an open road.

That's how forming new neural pathways works, too. If your knee-jerk reaction to making a mistake is an internal telling off ("You are such an idiot!"), then your task is to change that first thought to "It's okay. Everyone makes mistakes." You do that by reciting that to yourself after each mistake. "But wait," you might protest, "that's not how I feel!" Of course it's not. You've trained yourself to think one way your whole life. Changing that neural pathway will take time and feel completely unnatural! But think of that road less traveled that needs your feet on it to clear it. You change your thoughts by repeating a different script to yourself, whether you believe it at the time or not. Yes, it's hard. Yes, it can feel awkward. But if doing what feels natural is no longer serving you, then might I suggest that a little discomfort is what you need at this moment?


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