Sarah May Bates
June 15, 2013 1:00 pm

This is about building healthy muscle memory; or, how to set up positive habits, break negative ones and train yourself into things that soothe overwhelming emotions or uncomfortable emotions.

When you have a hard time managing bad feelings that come up, be it anxiety, loneliness or plain old boredom, often times the only solution is to numb them, whether that be with alcohol, food, television, sex or perhaps a combination of all of them. Worse still, once these types of routines are set up, it’s hard to break out of them because you semi-rely on them. They are your self-soothing methods. The biggest downside of unhealthy habits like these is they can trap you for years down the road. One day you’re out of shape and chemically “down” because you’ve been sitting in front of the TV every night eating ice cream. Plus, when you wake up the next morning, you feel exhausted so jogging is just not an option.

So how to alter this habitual life-suck? The answer, most likely, will not come from logical thinking, because to get here in the first place your mind has had to rationalize a lot of unhealthy behavior. No, I’ve found the most effective way to break negative cycles and replace them with a healthy ones is tricking yourself. And if you’re going to do it right, time is of the essence.

For example: If you find you are in a situation where you are about to succumb to a negative habit that you’re trying to break and/or your emotions are triggered and that is causing you to self-soothe with unhealthy things, as soon as possible and before your brain has time to consider things, jump into a positive action. Literally, while your brain is not looking, just go do it. Don’t pause for a second to reconsider, because as soon as you do, your chemically depressed brain will start to talk you out of it.

Wherever your unhealthy habit happens to reside, plan for the attack ahead of time and know how to spot a weak moment. Say you get into bad behaviors when you are alone at home on Friday nights because that’s when you feel anxious and depressed. To start a positive habit in the face of this feeling that does not involve dairy and chocolate, as soon as this emotion begins to creep into the back of your mind, grab your jacket and head out for a walk. Or grab your yoga mat and go to whatever class is happening at your local studio. Or walk to a bookstore and text a few friends from there while you peruse the new graphic novels.

Whatever it is, have a list of things that sound at least mildly pleasing to you ready when you need them. Avoid things that are centered around alcohol or sex, because this can become the reason you do not use the “healthy” option one day. The best answer is anything that gets your blood flowing (exercise), anything that gets you around friends who are positive in your life, and anything that sucks up time. If you find you choose a healthy option and you hate it there and regret it immediately, that’s totally normal and fine and suck it up just this once. It’s par for the course when you’re trying out new activities. Just get through it: go through the motions and you will choose something else next time. It’s nothing to regret. The activities you choose will not all feel perfect. They might feel awkward or cumbersome or impractical, but eventually you will find your faves and they will be your go-to plans in the future. The important thing is to do something new and healthy and different, and to do it before questioning it.

If you find that you got yourself out of the house but are wandering aimlessly, (going in literal circles of ambivalence), the best rule is to stick to Plan A. Just commit and accept the fact that it might suck a bit. That’s okay, just go. It’s just a few hours of your life and you can time-waste in creative ways while you’re there. The most important part is that you went. You won the battle – the rest is inconsequential.

Once you have your list of ten activities that you can do at any given time when you’re in your danger-zones, the process get a lot easier. You might be tired some days or not in the mood others, but it doesn’t matter. Shove yourself out the door regardless. Wherever you end up, do your best and don’t give it another thought. Just get out the door and go.  That’s your goal.

“Why? This sounds terrible,” you say. Very soon and when you’re not looking, you will notice that you are able to control your actions despite your brain. Even when you’re depressed or in a triggered emotional state. The process will get easier and easier, and the best part is, you will mentally and physically start to crave the healthier habit. You will adapt to it and grow a new baseline for health. Suddenly you look up and realize acting responsible and healthy is not so hard or scary, it just is. And from there, you can decide how you want to be, and then actually be that.

Just don’t lose momentum in the first month and a half and don’t give yourself any slack. Most importantly, never pause to debate. Before you have time to analyze it, just do it. Sometimes your brain can get the best of you. It’s your heart and soul that decide who you really want to be.

Happy Sunday, my friends! Xox Sarah

Featured image 

 All rights reserved by Mary-Heather on Flickr

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