Why can’t I CHANGE?


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Despite your best intentions to turn over a new leaf, you keep falling back to old ways. Sound familiar? Here’s how to change for good…

If every Monday starts with a long list of self-improvements which leave you feeling bad when you falter, you’re not alone.

Hoping to eat healthily, hit the gym, work productively and have a pleasant evening with friends and family, can easily turn into a mid-morning doughnut, procrastinating at work, one too many glasses of wine with dinner and a late night staring at social media.

According to Dr Gabija Toleikyte, neuroscientist and author of Why the F*ck Can’t I Change?, the majority of people take years to alter their habits.

She says: ‘I’ve worked with thousands of people who face the same problems — eating junk food, making excuses not to exercise, entering destructive relationships, spending too much time online, missing out on sleep.

‘We’re creatures of habit because habits require less energy and mental space than learning new things.’

Every habit serves a purpose, which is why it’s hard to stop the bad ones.

We may know they’re ‘bad’, but they offer escapism, comfort and safety.

So why do we form traits and patterns in the first place?

Evolutionarily, we have three major brain areas: the lizard brain, the mammal brain and the human brain.

Dr Toleikyte says: ‘The lizard controls automatic functions such as heartbeat and digestion. The mammal keeps us safe. It learns by repetition and likes to stick to tried and tested habits because they’ve resulted in our survival so far. The human brain is responsible for our individual personality traits.’

Ideally, the brain centres work together to help us make good decisions and resist temptations, but our brains don’t always function ideally.

‘The mammal brain contains the amygdala, which is where fear arises. It’s always seeking safety, while the human brain wants to learn, develop and change. This is where conflict arises,’ says Dr Toleikyte. ‘It’s soul-destroying to try but fail to change. We doubt ourselves, which lowers self-esteem and leads to disappointment. This causes additional stress, which makes lasting change even harder, because stress is not a frame of mind conducive to change.

‘When we’re stressed or tired, the mammal brain gives us fear and anxiety in the hope that we revert to the routines where we feel safe, even if those routines are detrimental. This is why I advise writing down all the drawbacks of continuing a habit and the benefits of trying a new way. We have to educate the mammal brain.’

When we slip up, it’s vital not to be hard on ourselves.

‘Change requires so much to happen in the brain — beware of criticising yourself for what you “should” have done,’ Dr Toleikyte says.

We create the strongest brain networks for the actions we repeat most often, so we need to create new networks while weakening the old — which requires time, consistency, energy and repetition.

It can take a month or two, but with repeated action, new habits become automatic, while old habits fade. We can become the kind of people who try new things and make good decisions.

Dr Toleikyte says: ‘The mammal brain will keep trying to bring you back to old ways, but success arises when we engage our prefrontal cortex — the area of the human brain responsible for learning, creativity and rational decision making.

‘But the prefrontal cortex needs energy, so always start new habits in the morning or after a refreshing break.

‘Every one of us has a special and unique brain. I hope that learning about it helps you understand and love yourself a little more. Remember that you already are incredible.’

Edited by Kim Willis

  • Why the F*ck Can’t I Change? by Dr Gabija Toleikyte is out now.

How to… CHANGE

  • Pick one habit you’d like to change — just one!

  • Write a list of the benefits of changing. This helps reinforce motivation.

  • Spend time with people you love and keep a gratitude journal. The brain needs good vibes to allow new habits to form and stick.

  • New habits take at least a month to become automatic, so keep making small and regular changes.

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