A theme that comes up regularly with my clients is a sense of frustration that transitioning to healthy patterns and choices seems to be so hard. Maybe this feels familiar to you. You can understand logically how a different choice might result in an outcome that felt better, but you continue to make choices that match old patterns. Here are a few examples of how this might look:
- You are committed to healthy eating, but after a stressful day you find yourself overeating.
- You start the day better with a brisk walk or a jog, but you find yourself sleeping in.
- You’ve really gotten diligent at managing your blood sugars, but on a tough day you skip your checks.
- You have made an effort to broaden your social circle, but you’ve started isolating yourself.
- You’ve learned some strategies to avoid old family conflicts, but recently you have been getting drawn in.
That’s just a small list of some common ways that healthy choices seem to be in conflict with old patterns. This can be especially challenging because old patterns seem to crop up most strongly when you are feeling stressed, sad, angry, or overwhelmed–those times when you most need healthy coping tools.
Why Are Healthy Choices Hard When We Need Them the Most?
That’s a question my clients ask when we explore this topic. And I think that the answer is that, for most of us, our old patterns are just that, old. They are things that you have carried with you throughout your life. They are often tools or strategies that you may have learned in childhood. Because of that, old patterns have a familiarity that is comfortable–even if the patterns are unhealthy or result in painful consequences.
When you are under stress, or you are experiencing tough emotions, your brain is likely to default to the most familiar coping strategy. Those are well-worn neural pathways, and so they are familiar defaults. So, even though it is frustrating, it does make sense that you would slide back to older patterns when you are stressed out.
How To Maintain Healthy Changes Under Stress
Once you understand why it is so easy to slide back into old patterns, you can begin to make your healthy choices more actively. Just knowing that you are likely to default to old habits under stress can help you be more aware. If you know that you’re likely to overeat when you are mad, you can choose to stay away from the kitchen, or even get out of the house altogether. A brisk walk is a healthy coping substitute–you can visualize yourself grounding out your anger as you walk.
Understanding how default coping works can also help you be more patient and kind with yourself. I talked in an earlier post about how easy it is to give up on self-care after a slide. Real change takes time. It takes consistent effort, and patience with the natural back and forth motion. I’ve compared healthy growth to walking up a sand dune–you’re progressing forward and sliding back at the same time. It also makes sense that you might need some support as you work toward healthy changes.
So remember, real change takes time. Be patient with your healthy growth, and compassionate when you find yourself in old patterns, and you can make that change stick.
Image Credit: Photo “Patience” by jfleischmann via Flickr