19 December 2019
WILL POWER VS CHANGING ENVIRONMENTAL TRIGGERS: PRACTICAL ADVICE FOR CUTTING BAD HABITS & MAKING LONG TERM CHANGE – Part 2
In Part 1 of this article we explored the associations our brains make between environmental triggers and certain behaviours, specifically ones that make achieving our health goals more difficult. It is now time to dig a little deeper. As discussed at the conclusion of my last article, when looking at behaviour change, we need to…
In Part 1 of this article we explored the associations our brains make between environmental triggers and certain behaviours, specifically ones that make achieving our health goals more difficult.
It is now time to dig a little deeper.
As discussed at the conclusion of my last article, when looking at behaviour change, we need to ask ourselves “why am I not doing the desired behaviour already?”
If there is some kind of limitation, then no matter how much we try to squeeze a new behaviour in, or squeeze an old one out, if the “unhealthy” behaviour is serving a critical purpose, it will continue to reappear.
Something we need to be aware of, is that the state we are in—both physiologically and psychologically—affects how susceptible we are to a certain environmental triggers or stimuli.
An example of this might be that we are often stopping for take-away food on the journey home from work. Sure, we can attempt to change the environment by taking a different route home, but if we have had a stressful day of work and have not eaten sufficient amounts of various nutrients (things our body needs to carry out daily functions and perform at our best), then it is likely we will get to the end of the day and feel like stopping for comfort food regardless of the route we take.
When this is the case, we don’t want the band aid solution (such as avoiding driving past McDonalds), we want to address the deeper, more fundamental layer (ensuring we are well nourished and not psychologically stressed).
In the example outlined above, if we are feeling unhappy or stressed and blood glucose levels are low (the level of sugar in our blood, which declines if we haven’t consumed food for an extended time period), the undesired behaviour will likely still appear in one way or another. It is the two factors of low blood glucose and high psychological stress that need to be addressed more than the specific environmental trigger, such as driving past a big yellow M.
As stated, we don’t want a band aid solution. We want to avoid being wounded altogether.
Something to be aware of, is that if we are working a high stress job, or a job we are unhappy in, we are more likely to make more impulsive decisions and seek immediate pleasure. Additionally, if we haven’t had a chance to eat and our blood glucose is low, then our brain is on high-alert and looking for calorie sources.
Let’s go over an example of how to address this more fundamental problem.
One strategy could be scheduling in a certain time at work (particularly mid-afternoon, during the post-lunch ‘dip’), for a short meditation session and to consume nutrient-dense food. This food should be high in protein food to keep us feeling full and our blood glucose levels stable, and thus carrying us through the “trouble period” of driving home. This can then be done in conjunction with taking a different route home, which is the next layer of complexity, compounding the likelihood of a successful intervention.
Another core problem could be that we are frequently feeling tired or sleepy during the day.
Let’s take a moment to distinguish between these two states.
Sleepy means an increased tendency to go to sleep, whereas being tired refers to physical and/or mental fatigue. If you are tired during the day, this could be due to a range of reasons, such as a long commute, an unstimulating job, relationship problems or lack of physical exercise etc. Therefore, regularly feeling tired during the day doesn’t necessarily mean you are tired from a lack of sleep, it is likely you are feeling tired from your lifestyle. The mental and physical fatigue we feel from this is often what causes our brain to be more susceptible to reward seeking behaviours.
If this is the case, it is worth looking into our lifestyle issue that needs to be addressed in addition to the environmental triggers that signal “quick reward found here”.
If we are not achieving at least 6 hours of sleep for consistent nights, this can cause us to feel sleepy during the day. The reduced energy we will feel during the day from restricted sleep can cause our brain to seek out energy from other sources to mask this fatigue. This, again, may be the cause of negative health behaviours such as excess calorie consumption, extra caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes etc.
So, addressing the more fundamental layer of physiological and psychological needs will make us more resilient to the immediate environment. However, just because we are well fed and psychologically calm, this does not mean we shouldn’t engineer our environment for success.
Another common and easily implemented environmental improvement is something like having snacks and treats stored away where we can’t see them. E.g. don’t have things lying out on the bench at work, where our brain sees them and is more likely to “suggest” that we have one, or ten. Free lollies that are on display at work appears exactly like an easy win to our brain.
Let’s take a recap of the action steps we can take.
Here is an example of some questions you may ask yourself…
|1. What is the issue?
Stopping for take-away food too often, thereby often taking in too many calories 2. What time of day is it happening? Or if it is happening at random times, is it linked to a particular paired behaviour and/or environmental trigger?
– On the way home from work, or usually after a big day at work, and when I drive home past my certain favourite food stores.
3.Why is it happening? or How am I feeling when I do this?
– Usually after a big day at work, after a fight with my spouse
– Feeling unhappy or stressed after work, feeling hungry and depleted of energy 4. How can I address this problem?
This is where we can plan out strategies for different scenarios to avoid the problem occurring:
You get the idea.
We are always looking for easy wins and things we can gain with little-to-no risk or cost to us.
Your internal environment (physical and psychological state) impacts how you perceive and respond to the external environment. We need to construct environments that work with us, not against us – and part of the environment we are looking to manipulate is ourselves. Successful strategies will address both.