A new approach to old habits

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Much of what I do as a nutrition and wellness coach is help people replace old habits that no longer serve them with new habits that are more in line with their current goals. Habits are funny things. We attach so much emotion to them. Sometimes we hate them, are ashamed of or embarrassed by them, and we just want them gone. Other times we find them oddly comforting even when we know they aren’t good for us. Often we feel trapped by them; they’re so deeply ingrained that we feel powerless to break free.

What if we took a less antagonistic approach and attitude toward the habits that no longer serve us? What if we showed them appreciation, thanked them for all the ways they did serve us once, even if in the long term the effects were not overwhelmingly positive and we now feel ready to move in a different direction?

Think about a habit you’d like to change. Odds are it had its genesis in a time of high emotion for you. Maybe that coffee milkshake and double scone on the way to work was the only thing getting you out of bed in the morning to spend your day at a job you hated. Maybe that nightly bag of chips in front of the TV was your way of coping with the stress of a sick parent or child. Maybe that pint of ice cream was a comfort after a brutal breakup that broke your heart. Maybe that bag of candy made you feel less lonely. Maybe that Sunday morning box of donuts made you feel closer to your donut-loving mom. Maybe that weekend booze binge let you feel like you were making one decision for yourself at a time when you felt all of your decisions were being made for you. Maybe that cigarette gave you a feeling of control, calm and ritual at a time when your life felt completely out of control. Maybe that lunchtime soda was a reward for getting through your morning and a bolster to help you get through the afternoon.

At one time, that habit served you. It gave you something you needed. It helped you cope somehow. It helped you survive something intense. And you liked that feeling of calm, control, comfort, reward, or whatever it was, so you kept doing it. Because guess what? You’re human, and that’s how we’re wired. We take an emergency, short-term measure and we turn it into a daily routine because we don’t want to lose the feeling that it gives us. We keep seeking that hit.

Realizing that our habits no longer serve us, that we’re no longer getting that reward from them, or that we’d like to get it in a more health-supporting way is absolutely the first step to changing those habits. But the second step is to reflect on those habits without judgement or shame and to feel gratitude for how they helped us cope. Those habits did us a service, they helped us survive, and they allowed us to get to the point where we are now — ready for change.

Affirmation: “Thank you for your service, old habit, but it’s time for me to put you back in the toolbox and move on to the next phase of my life!”

More about how to do that in future posts and future issues of my newsletter!

A new approach to old habits

The importance of ritual

16316-a-young-woman-stretching-before-exercise-pvHuman beings are creatures of habit. No matter how spontaneous and full of surprises some of us may like our lives to be, we all have touchstones that ground us, bring us back to ourselves and give us a sense of belonging. Beginning and ending the day with routines and rituals can be a great way to manage anxiety, disconnect from the hamster wheel in your brain and remind yourself that you are part of something immense, beautiful and important.

Here are some ideas for morning and evening rituals. You can chose one or all or come up with your own ideas to bookend your day with a sense of purpose, peace and gratitude.

MORNING

Focus on the physical. Instead of jolting awake with a sense of urgency over your impending to-do list, take a moment first thing upon waking to focus instead on physical sensations. The weight of your body on the mattress, the feel of the sheets/blanket against your skin, the gentle rise and fall of your breath, the light coming in the window, birdsong or traffic from outside — focusing on these sensations instead of the story in your head about all you have to do for the next 16 hours can bring a sense of calm. You may notice things about your environment that you never noticed before.

Feed your soul. Whether the Bible, the Tao Te Ching or simply a favorite poem, inspirational words followed by prayer, meditation or contemplation can create a sacred space in which to begin your day and remind you that you are loved, you are worthy, and you are part of all the tremendous beauty in the world.

Move gently. Sun salutations, gentle stretches, a stroll around the yard while the dog performs his/her own morning ritual — all of these things can help to gently wake the body and get it ready to perform. Whether you’re facing an hour-long commute or you intend to knock out a five-mile jog before the kids wake up, beginning with gentle movements will help prepare your body for what’s to come.

Warm your belly. Before reaching for that cup of coffee or tea, try priming your body for digestion with a cup of warm water and lemon, ginger, mint or other herbs. In addition to refreshing the mouth and warming the belly, this will gently awaken your tastebuds, get saliva production started and alert your digestive enzymes that nourishment is at hand.

Cleanse mindfully. Many cultures and spiritual practices use cleansing rituals to prepare for important ceremonies. You can do a mini version of this every day. Brush your hair and give yourself a gentle scalp massage with the pads of your fingertips before shampooing, use a dry-brush technique on your body before showering, rub a bit of coconut oil into your skin after bathing to soften and seal in moisture. So often we feel disconnected from our bodies because we believe they’ve let us down, or we’ve let them down. Mindfully and gently cleansing yourself can help you reconnect with your amazing vessel and learn to treat it with kindness, appreciation and gratitude.

Let the music play. As you transition from gentle waking to the more active part of your day, music can be a terrific mood-setting and productivity tool. Fire up your own motivational playlist or use one from a streaming service such as Songza, Spotify, Pandora or Amazon Prime Music. Sing, dance and get your body moving and your mind ready to Do. This. Thing.

EVENING

Block it out. While turning off electronics completely at least an hour or two before retiring is a great idea, it can lead to anxiety and feelings of isolation for many people. At the very least, take measures to keep blue light from computer, tablet and phone screens from interfering with your body’s attempts to move into sleep mode by installing an app that blocks blue light. An app called f.lux is a great option for Windows, Mac, Linux, iPhone and iPad. Android tablets and phones can use Twilight. These apps are highly customizable and use your geographical location to begin dimming and warming the light from your screen as the sun sets.

Write it down. All those things you’re keeping in your head, all those tasks that went unfinished today and will have to be completed tomorrow, all that correspondence that needs to be tackled at the start of your workday — Write. It. Down. Put it on paper and get it out of your head. If those thoughts drift back in while you’re winding down for the day, remind yourself that it’s all written out for you to deal with tomorrow. It will keep until then. If thoughts of the day ahead wake you during the night, keep a small notebook and pen near your bedside and write these thoughts down as they come. Once they’re on paper, let them pass from your mind. If you can’t let go of the nagging thought that you’ve forgotten something, write THAT down: “I think I’ve forgotten something.” The very act of getting that down on paper will either jog your memory or give you a sense of having acknowledged it so that you can clear your mind for relaxation and sleep.

Reverse it. A simple way to ritually close out your day is to do your morning routine/ritual in reverse. Soothing music, a gentle soak in epsom salts and lavender oil to relax your body (or other mindful bodycare rituals such as a gentle oil cleanse to remove makeup, a foot and leg massage with coconut oil, etc.), a cup of relaxing herbal tea (at least two hours before bedtime if your bladder wakes you during the night), extremely gentle stretches or yoga poses (savasana, anyone?) to relax your muscles, devotional readings, meditations and/or prayers of gratitude, and finally relaxing into the physical sensations of the nighttime world and your cozy bed — your weight on the mattress and pillow, the sheets against your skin, the warmth of your breath through your nostrils, the lullaby of owls and crickets or the murmur of tires on asphalt.

Give yourself over to whatever morning and evening rituals work for you. You may find that you sleep better at night and are more productive during the day knowing that you have these comforting touchstones to return to at every sunrise and sunset!

The importance of ritual