Habit Loops- The Story of our Lives
I have heard it said in numerous ways that somewhere around 90-95% of our behaviors are completely unconscious. Obviously, I do not mean that we literally sleep through our actions but and in a figurative and neurological way, we are. This is because we operate day in and day out in a series of habits loops that are governed by the subconscious mind.
We wake and stumble into the same morning routine not realizing how almost identical the process was to what we did the day before. The act of brushing our teeth just part of the routine, done as something we were trained to do to keep our teeth safe from those sugar bugs and decay.
Driving. Walking. Food choices and eating behaviors. Thinking the same thoughts repetitively without even recognizing the torture of doing so. All of these are examples of the ingrained patterns of habits that started in the earliest years of our lives.
You see from the ages of 0-7 years our brains are extremely receptive. Young children’s brains operate in a pattern of observing, mimicking and imprinting impressions into the neural pathways of the brain and it is then that we are forming the habits of our adult years. Programming all of our behaviors.
During this early and precious time of our lives our brain is largely in Delta and Theta waves, described as a hypnagogic trance. In this trance-like state, we are seating beliefs about ourselves formulated from our observations-- who we need to be to be loved and what we need to do to stay safe-- right into the most primitive part of our brain. Also known as the low brain or reptilian brain, this is where our subconscious beliefs are stored and when we grow up ultimately they’re running the show.
While the information in this article suggests that young children are in less conscious states. My belief is that we are most conscious during this time.
Children are pure consciousness, being that they live fully in the present moment with a sense of joy and wonderment , they are unfiltered and authentically who they are.
If we are awake and aware enough, making an effort to be mindful in our interactions with them, careful not to project our preprogramming on to them, we can learn about ourselves from our kids while allowing them space to age with more grace.
Children wear their hearts and their big emotions very clearly for all to see without apologies. Kids haven’t yet developed the unhealthy coping strategies their adult counterparts often trend towards (hint the very behaviors that they then program because of our reactions to their feelings.)
I mean I get it. It’s hard when they hit, scream, kick or bite, but hey that's just their primal instincts, they haven’t turned that into-- substance abuse, emotional eating or other self-destructive habits-- formed because they didn’t have opportunities to observe strategies for handling stress and other emotions healthfully.
When we observe aggressive or “defiant” behavior from our children (aka a reaction to an emotion they are trying to process) we need to stop and check our own emotional pulse and be mindful of how we are feeling before responding.
Parents and caregivers need to be teaching children about recognizing and expressing their emotions, talking to kids about moving the energy of emotions out of the body or they might come to believe like so many of us that showing, expressing and feeling negative emotions should be avoided at all costs.
It is critically important that we are acting as conscious and compassionate parents, modeling and working together to understand emotions and how they affect all the systems of our body-- especially the very real effect they have on our health.
This is not to imply the full weight of our children's belief system rests solely on our shoulders, we can not discount their perceptions of the world at large. However, the example we set matters and just may support them in processing their view of the world through a more mindful lens.
I am spending this time talking about children and emotional intelligence because it is important to understanding ourselves and our habits, especially if you are trying to change anything in your life. In order to change you need to become AWARE of your subconscious programs and understand that they are very much a product of your EMOTIONS.
In the book Power of Habit written by Charles Duhigg, habit is explored at length, but the shorthand version is this-- all of our habits work in a loop- cue, routine, reward.
Example, you feel stressed from a long day with your 3 children under the age of 5, once they are all finally sleeping which took by your estimation what had to have been years off of your life-- you head straight for red wine, dark chocolate, and Netflix. The reward is the relief you feel as the wine temporarily depresses your nervous system and the chocolate gives you a hit of dopamine from the sugar and caffeine. Netflix allows you to numb out, escaping from your life and serves as a distraction from consuming the wine and chocolate, so you don’t feel so guilty/shameful about not feeling “good enough”.
That example is by no means a judgment. Hey, if that routine is your jam, it doesn’t make you feel bad about yourself and it is not negatively affecting your health, by all means, carry on.
However, this doesn’t seem to be the case in my personal experience and observation. Women, moms, in particular, feel extreme amounts of guilt and shame regarding their bodies, health, and mothering. The underlying emotions of this pattern of behaviors are what need to be dealt with and in a way that makes you feel better, not worse.
Dr. Joe Dispenza a top neuroscientist has dedicated his life to the mind-body connection and is proving the science behind practices like meditation, visualization and yoga with brain imaging. Most incredible is the story of how he healed his spinal cord with visualization alone.
Dr. Joe says emotions are the route of all of our habits. His work sights emotions as the predictors of thoughts which ultimately become our behaviors-- from what we say to what and how we do things, which are all habits-- everything we do starts and ends with emotions.
In the above example of a habit loop, if after the hit of dopamine wears off you feel guilt and shame you are ultimately circling back to stress and there starts the vicious cycle again.
For more on breaking the habit cycle, I highly recommend Dr. Joe’s book Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself
Quick recap- intentionally get in touch with your emotions and watch what behaviors stem from them, and if you are unhappy with the habit that is present then find a new routine.
All emotions, most especially stress impact our physiological functions. An overabundance of stress in our bodies (unprocessed emotions) has a cumulative effect that can and most likely will result in chronic illness or disease because you are weakening your immune system and creating severe hormonal imbalances.
Your subconscious belief system is the greatest predictor of the relationship that you have with yourself and subsequently your relationship to the world at large. Finding the space, stillness, and quiet to hear how you are speaking to yourself is imperative to experiencing greater love, joy, and health.
I think, therefore I am ~ Rene Descartes
So how do we become more AWARE and AWAKE to the subconscious belief system and programming?
Everything starts with INTENTION and ATTENTION, you must intentionally decide to pay attention to yourself. Act as if you are conducting a research study on yourself, carefully observing and documenting your findings. FEELING emotions as they arise and noting the thought processes that follow.
Witness the craving (coping strategy) that comes after the feeling. The craving may be food, sex, substance, entertainment, distraction, shopping, exercise… see what your personal tendencies are.
From the observation phase, you can begin a reprogramming!
As the emotion occurs you create a new routine and thus experience a new sensation. Invite an experience of a reward that elicits an enticing and energizing, self-loving and healing response without circling you back to the initial emotion.
As I said it is helpful to have a daily practice of being with yourself in stillness and quiet, as it can be quite difficult to be a mindful observer of yourself in the world we live in with the high number of demands placed on our energy and time.
Quiet and stillness calm the nervous system (bonus if your throw in darkness,) helping to take you out of a constant fight/flight/freeze(sympathetic nervous system) and into a state of relaxation (Parasympathetic Nervous System). If you have a resistance to the idea of meditation, that in and of itself may be an indicator of how badly you need it.
As a Yoga teacher, I witness this all the time, students enjoy the movement phase of the class-- especially those who pride themselves on doing more-- for overachievers sitting still can be harder than standing on their head.
Do less, Be more
Speaking of yoga, have you tried it?
While Yoga certainly supports reducing your stress levels, the deeper practice and tradition of yoga is about self-discovery and reconnecting to the oneness in all things.
Perhaps, a lot of those deep nasty self-limiting beliefs that are driving your behavior have to do with feeling separate or misunderstood?
Yoga puts you into connection with your body, the container of stress and emotions. By design, the asana practice (or any physical activity) puts the body in a state of stress. The beauty of Yoga practice is that when you practice with intention and attention to breath], allowing yourself to fully feel what you feel, you are learning to respond to stress/emotions with ease and mindfulness.
If Yoga and meditation seem too foreign of a place to start, pick up a journal and write daily. Freely let words and emotions hit the page and then go back and read what came out. Journaling can be very helpful for gaining insight into the workings of your mind.
Another approach would be to seek the professional support of a therapist or counselor. There are tremendous benefits of working with a counselor and so many therapeutic models that support accessing your subconscious belief system. Therapy isn’t just for those with a diagnosis or trauma (though crucial if you do), we all could use the supportive ear of someone who can constructively challenge us to rise to our best selves.
Hiring a Health or Wellness coach is another great approach to supporting changing habit loops. Important to note a Coach is very different from a counselor, and can not work with trauma or other issues that would qualify for therapeutic intervention. However, coaches are well trained and versed in the science of behavior change, and can support you in defining your vision for your best life while working through the roadblocks. A Coach can support you with identifying your core values and saying bye-bye to the old and tired programs you have been over-identifying with.
Lastly, since the emphasis of this piece is on the importance of connecting with our emotions and emotion is energy in motion, e-motion, it is also greatly beneficial and important to spend time in nature.
The healing energy found in-- fresh air, soil, grass, sand, water, rock, wood, metal, and sunlight-- is profound and resonates with every cell of our being. Everything that exists has a current of energy and carries a charge. We rebalance the charge of our bodies when we make direct contact with the earth, also known as earthing. Sunlight recharges our batteries, fresh air soothes our lungs, and water (especially ocean) cleanses and detoxes impurities.
The 5 Elements of Ancient Chinese Medicine actually denotes a pair of emotions that correlate with each element, expressed based on whether we are in our out of balance. Furthermore, each element is associated with organs of the body. So the idea is that when we are out of balance in one or more of the elements we invite disease process of the corresponding internal system of the body, another great reason to get in touch with what feelings you are suppressing or denying.
For more on the 5 Elements and how to incorporate them into a powerful energy medicine yoga practice, read this book.
**Image from pg. 45 The Energy Medicine Yoga Prescription by Lauren K Walker
To wrap things up, I will simply say this.
If you feel stuck or are suffering from pain, illness, or sadness-- if you feel disconnected or unsure of your unique purpose and passion-- it may be time to consider making some changes.
Start reprogramming your subconscious.
Wake up each day and do something different, it can be that simple but you must do so with deliberate intent.
Change is hard but not at all impossible, change is the only thing that is constant really. If you are ready to change your life and approach the process with curiosity, openness, acceptance, and love-- anything can and will happen.
P.s for another interesting perspective on the field of habits see this article on Morphic Fields
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