Change can be difficult! Whether we focus on adopting new habits or changing some of our old ones, we are in for a bit of a journey. As we focus our intentions on a topic of particular interest, the Reticular Activating System (RAS) begins to gather all the information it deems to be pertinent; first for our safety and survival and second for our success in creating neural connections that are attracted to that topic.
Neurons then fire together and wire together. As they wire together they attract other neurons and begin the process of establishing neural bundles. These bundles create a powerful signal that ensures faster and more efficient message conduction between our sensory system (that collects information) and our brain. Then the RAS brings this information to the attention of our conscious mind.
This goes a long way to explain why, when we are interested in a new topic, we suddenly see more of it in the environment. This can be awesome and super supportive for all of us who are travelling this road of self-development. The general rule of thumb is that it takes 21 days to establish a new habit or create a behavioural change. If this is true, then why do so many of us eventually revert back to our old habits or negative thought patterns?
It would seem that the general rule of thumb is a bit misleading. It may take 21 days to develop a habit at the conscious level. But it takes much longer to change a process that has been hard-wired into our RAS. This is particularly true if we installed it originally as a means to keep us safe. Remember, the first focus of the RAS is our safety and survival. According to James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, these entrenched thought patterns take between 66 and 254 days to change at the unconscious level. That’s much longer than I expected.
Why did I think it would be easy? Do we as humans, actively fight change? I don’t think so! In my experience, the majority of us are not intentionally resisting change. Instead, we are simply hard-wired to stick with current habits, stay in routine, and repeat our existing patterns as a matter of efficiency. “Resistance to change” may be the behaviour we observe, but it might be more accurate to call it a “preference for stability.”
I like to think of my brain as a happy place where there is a beautiful bowl of multi-coloured Smarties waiting for me at the end of each day. These Smarties represent my level of peace and harmony. When my bowl is full, I know my brain has been able to complete her allotment of unconscious functions, as well as a daily dose of new tasks. My job is to keep as many Smarties as possible in the bowl each day. However, when the situation calls for it, I have to use a Smartie now and again to offset a blip in my peace and serenity.
In the following scenario a child tells his Mom that he loves her. Isn’t that awesome! She gets to add a Smartie to her bowl. Later that same morning, Mom gets a call from the school to inform her that her son has been injured in the schoolyard. There go a couple of Smarties. Mom races off to the school (-3 more Smarties) and takes her child to Urgent Care. There is a very ill, older man at Urgent Care coughing everywhere (-2 Smarties) and the Triage Nurse says it will be 8 hours before the Doc can see them (-6 Smarties). Finally at 10pm, the child has been seen, assessed and had a cast put on and off they travel, back home. Do you think Mom has any Smarties left? Would you?
Upon returning home and tucking her young one into bed Mom suddenly remembers that she has a big presentation to submit. The Boss needs it first thing in the morning. There are no Smarties in her bowl. Now this woman is functioning on fumes and chances are that she will not be functioning at her usual capacity. She frets that her Boss may comment on the number of grammatical errors in the report or say that it simply wasn’t up to her standard. Now she begins to use up her Smarties for the next day!
How can we avoid the above scenario and begin to refill our bowls with beautiful, life-affirming Smarties? The answer is one we have already discussed my friends. We have to reframe and retrain our RAS. Things that we might have once viewed as ‘threatening’ can be reframed to be simply ‘challenging.’ Things that are ‘overwhelming’ might be considered ‘exciting’ from a different view point. Finally, things that were ‘out of our control’ can be reclaimed and placed back ‘into our control’. It is all a matter of practise and commitment.
To effect long standing change we have to consciously seek out and examine the patterns we have established in our unconscious mind. Did we install these patterns as a way to keep us safe, to help us survive? If so, we can redefine this survival function to take on a more limited sphere of influence. For instance, spiders and snakes that once had me running for the hills are no longer things I consider life-threatening. After we have reviewed and updated our unconscious patterns we start to create room to develop new patterns and strategies. Did I mention practise?
Our brain has a very well-established threat response and change resistance mechanism. New thoughts, habits and behaviours are uncomfortable and feel like a threat to our RAS. This activates a chain reaction of neural messages, hormonal responses and finally, behaviours. Think of fight, flight and freeze and there go our Smarties!
We have all experienced being in a deficit position, where all of our Smarties have been used up. Like when we push ourselves to change, we are asking to leave our comfort zone, enter the unknown, and expend precious energy on something new. Now we know why our brain works most smoothly in situations that take the least amount of energy, and in nearly all cases, the brain chooses the known or practised strategy. It’s time to get busy!
What if I told you there was a way to motivate and accelerate the process? To learn more about turning your stress into success and how important this is for manifesting a life of your own design, please book a 30 minute phone call with Simone Usselman-Tod and ask about Dynamic Visioning. https://simoneusselmantod.com/book/
Stress Management and Mindset Breakthrough Coach
Certified Neuro Change Practitioner ™ and Coach
Certified NLP Master Practitioner and Coach
Certified Life and Business Coach