The Science behind Sustainable Behavioural Change

Feb 16, 2022
I think we can all appreciate that 2020/2021 has thrown us some curveballs, and to keep our heads above water, we have had to adapt and make some pretty significant changes to the way we live. Everyone will manage change differently; some of us take it in our stride and keep moving forward as if nothing has happened, others spend time in uncomfortable waters before they adjust, and others can’t seem to find their way through. 


Why is Change so difficult?

The unknown can be scary! Our bodies are programmed to detect a threat and eliminate them - fear is a sighnificant threat. In the initial stages of any change, we are putting ourselves in a position of the unknown, which activates our stress response; some are more risk-tolerant and able to adjust more quickly, while others stay in this space of fear and uncertainty for a longer period. When under stress, we tend to default to our learned behaviours for safety. This is why some people have a hard time creating sustainable change because they continue to default to their previous behaviours. 


Our behaviour is a reflection of our mindset.

If we start to think about what determines our behaviour, we need to look a little deeper within ourselves. Our behaviour is influenced by the thoughts we have. If we think a certain way; for example, “my colleague is manipulative,” we are unlikely to ever trust that colleague and our behaviour will reflect that. Now, if we look deeper still, our thoughts are the interpretation of the feelings we have within our physical body - it's the knots in the stomach, radiating heat or the tension in our muscles. These feelings are the observation of our emotions, which is the combination of all the physiological data moving throughout our body, providing information for it to operate efficiently. 


We must understand the nervous system to influence change.

Our nervous system is the controlling, regulatory and communication system for this physiological data. It is constantly collecting information from both our internal and external environments, sensing any changes that may threaten our well-being. The sole purpose of the nervous system is to ensure our survival. If the nervous system registers a threat, it activates a cascade of reactions to eliminate or minimise the threat based on our past experiences. This cascade of energetic reactions results in emotions that give rise to our feelings, thoughts and, ultimately, how we behave.Our emotions occur within our subconscious, so it's challenging to make a conscious change at this level. However, if we become more aware of the associated feelings, we can adjust how we consciously respond through our thoughts and elicit a different behaviour.   
Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) controls many bodily functions and responses without conscious processing in order to conserve energy. 95% of what we do is an automatic process activated by the ANS in response to environmental stimuli. Think about when you tie your shoe; I highly doubt you're still thinking ‘bunny ears’ when you go through the steps - you do it without thinking! The same thing happens with our morning routine, and when we drive our car or sing along to a song, these actions occur without much thought. When you understand that 95% of what we do is habitual and done without conscious thought, you start to understand why it is so difficult to achieve behavioural change. 
How often do you find yourself harping on about a recurring issue or wanting to start a new health kick but nothing ever sticks. It's because we’ve all created a programmed response, so in times of stress, we can easily default back to this learned behaviour to find safety. We can discuss and talk about how we will change our behaviour, but until we have made neurological changes and reprogrammed that automatic response, we will always revert to our default in times of stress or disengagement. 


Are you creating space for change?

To ensure that behaviour is sustainable, we have to disconnect the neural circuit or the ‘old’ behaviour and re-wire a circuit for the ‘new’... this takes time and energy! Remember the time and patience it took for you (or your kids) to learn to read; we need to be showing the same patience, persistence and understanding in ourselves and those around us to create a safe environment that enables them to be vulnerable enough to rewire their brain to create change.Our body is sending and receiving over 10 million bits of information every second. When we are stressed or in a negative state, this information becomes chaotic, making it much harder for the nervous system to interpret and respond with clear commands; we seek safety and comfort by firing the ‘old’ behaviour's neural network. If we can better manage the input of information, we are more likely to strengthen the ‘new’ neural circuit and dissolve the ‘old’, creating new, sustainable behavioural responses.To manage the chaotic input of information, we must control our physiology - that is, how our nervous system responds to our environment and manages stress. This can be achieved through breathwork to calm our nervous system, exercise to stimulate hormone and chemical secretion and ensure strong human connections and support systems.  When we understand the underlying physiological requirements of sustaining behavioural change, we can foster a culture and environment that allows those around us to feel safe and supported as we navigate the journey of change.

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