Whether you’ve been diagnosed with diabetes or obesity and want to lose weight, or you want to kick your smoking habit to enjoy a longer, healthier life, there’s more to your success than simply determination. So what does influence your ability to make positive health behaviour changes?
Emotional reactions and negative beliefs
We’re unlikely to invite big change into our daily lives if we are in a constant cycle of emotional overreaction. But our emotions don’t just come from the events and exchanges that happen around and to us every day. They are tied up in our actions and beliefs about the world – and ourselves. So it makes sense that if you experience stress, you may try to alleviate those feelings by flooding your brain with dopamine from a sugar or nicotine hit. However, that doesn’t just create a chemical reaction, programming you to crave and seek out this reward more often; it also creates several emotional reactions at the same time.
Many people who want to make positive health behaviour changes have already taught themselves to believe they are wrong for their habits. The desire to change might be noble, but the problem is the self-judgement involved in the belief, which can set off a chain reaction. While we may experience feelings of comfort and pleasure from indulging, we may also feel self-loathing simultaneously for failing, which can feed the desire to indulge again. To make positive changes it’s important to assess not just the emotions but the beliefs behind them.
Like all things in life, we learn our habits often as coping mechanisms. But in order to stop, it isn’t just about recognising the habits you partake in now, but delving deeper to discover how and why these came about. This involves a little bit of self-reflection. Can you remember a time before this ritual became a part of your day? Are there any identifiable circumstances that could have led to it? If you trace the story back far enough, you’re likely to arrive at one of the situations which gave rise to your habit, and it may surprise you. It could be as simple as feeling excluded from a group leading to a belief that ‘people will like me more if I look like them or do what they do’.
What you do next
Part of making positive health behaviour changes is learning new habits and challenging old beliefs. This starts with scrutinising the negative beliefs and behaviours you’ve discovered and acknowledging the reasons why you want to change. It helps to have specific, tangible goals rather than fear of judgement, whether from yourself or others.
Now you can move on to taking small steps to change them, such as purposefully reducing your intake or trying healthier alternatives. Begin with realistic steps and goals so you don’t find yourself overwhelmed. You should also reflect honestly both on the times you succeed and when you fail while refraining from judgement. It’s not an easy process, but a health psychologist can provide you with the support you need, especially during the early days.
Learn more about the psychology of weight management