Much like a car, our brains are hot-wired to perform in a specific way. When learning a new skill, like playing an instrument, at first it may feel awkward strumming the strings or playing the notes, but as we continue to play, our brain actually forms dendrites or pathways that create memory. Therefore, the more we practice a skill, the easier it gets. After a while it becomes second nature, we don’t even have to think much about it.
When learning a new skill or positive habit this often works to our advantage as new tasks will become easier and easier. However, we can also learn destructive or unhealthy habits that can work against us as well, especially when it comes to unlearning them. Just like our brains memorize our repetitive positive actions; it also memorizes our negative ones, making it even more difficult to change. These bad behaviors are engrained into our brains or sub-consciousness and we often do them automatically and without much thought until after the fact. That’s when we become discouraged or disgusted with ourselves and ask, “Why do I keep doing the same thing, even though I make a conscious effort not to?”
One way to counteract or change negative behaviors or habits is to visualize yourself acting opposite or how you usually react or by creating a new ending to your common, reoccurring behaviors. Let’s use food as an example. You may have a habit of eating poorly around 3 p.m. everyday. You are well aware of this and every morning you declare that today will be different. You will resist the urge to snack at 3 p.m.
Well 3 p.m. rolls around and the sensation to eat something overtakes you and the temptation is just too hard to resist. Or maybe you eat great when at home because you don’t buy junk food, but have a hard time passing up the donuts in the staff lounge or at friend’s home. The time to control this behavior is not when you are confronted with the food, but before the temptation arises. Here’s how:
For the next several weeks and at least twice a day, visualize yourself saying no or resisting when tempted to eat poorly and then see yourself elated about not giving in. Scientists say that the brain doesn’t distinguish imagination or visualization from reality. It’s just like thinking about a lemon can make your mouth water or thinking about a gruesome crime can make you nauseated. So every time you say no to temptation, even in your imagination, you’re building new memorizes or dendrites to support your new behavior.
When it comes to bad habits, there are often triggers that bring out the worst in us or our deep seated insecurities. It’s helpful also if you can identify the triggers, which will enable you to act instead of react when they arise. For example, everyday at 3 p.m. you may feel a sensation of boredom and melancholy and seek out food for comfort. By knowing your trigger, you can use it as a part of your visualization to overcome specific behaviors.
Again, use your mind, imagination, and visualization to create new endings to your bad habits. Using the above example, during your 3-5 minute visualization, see yourself being overtaken with boredom and the desire to eat for comfort, and then imagine the inner turmoil you may feel. Next imagine yourself saying no to the temptation or talking to yourself, encouraging you not to give in. After that, imagine yourself replacing the bad habit with something positive like taking a walk around the block or drinking a tall glass of water. Do this several times a day for the next few weeks to give your brain time to memorize your new behavior. You will find that the visualization will transfer to your actual reality, meaning, when you begin to feel compelled to grab a treat, your brain may reach for the water or suggest taking a walk instead. You can use visualization to curb many types of automatic responses or emotional addictions like shyness, overworking, overcoming anger, and more.
I have outlined the steps below:
- Identify the behavior you want to change.
- Identify any triggers that usually happen that prompt the above behavior.
- For 3-5 minutes begin the visualization by imagining the behavior, trigger, and the inner conflict that arises within you.
- Visualize choosing a different response than normal or the complete opposite.
- In your imagination follow through with the new response or behavior.
- Imagine how good it feels to be successful. See others congratulating you.
- Repeat often.