Getting Unstuck to Change Your Health Behaviors…Key Ways to Teach an Old Dog New Tricks

It’s normal to get stuck when trying to change health behaviors to improve your health. There’s a strong connection between the mind and the body that contribute to patterns of how we think and feel and it’s not just mental. It is also biochemical. One key to getting unstuck from “old dog” patterns of negative health behaviors is to work through behaviors blocking your motivation to change.

According to the Merriam Dictionary, the phrase “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is used to say that a person who is old or is used to doing things in a certain way cannot learn or does not want to learn a new way. Many people use this as an excuse to not change their lifestyle to undo a lifetime of one or more poor health behaviors or habits.  Simply, they get stuck in their ways.

There is help for both dogs and their humans, to get unstuck and learn new ways of doing things. Unfortunately, it’s not just a matter of thinking and then using willpower, however. It starts with facing and confronting the why of needing to make a change. This is often where many of us start to get stuck. While we may have a new diagnosis, a significant symptom or lab value, in many cases, this, alone is not enough to drive change. While on the surface, we can rationally ask, “Why not?” Some thoughts and feelings can get in our way.

The good news is, is that our brains have this thing called neuroplasticity. Even if your brain is stuck in a particular negative pattern, you can take actions that can help to learn new things and to rewire your brain. Learning healthy “new tricks”, however, takes commitment, support, and resilience.

To get motivated, you first need to get unstuck. So what does being stuck look like? According to Margaret Lynch Ranier, if you are stuck, you may be exhibiting mysterious behaviors such as procrastination, avoidance, self-doubt, and self-sabotage. Other behaviors such as scary (negative) self-talk and blocking feelings can continue to drive stress and anxiety. This puts our body into a fight or flight state, or even a freeze state where we are too stressed to get unblocked and we remain stuck. This stress state turns on our sympathetic nervous system, and when this becomes chronic we avoid or procrastinate making a positive health behavior change.

Procrastination is one way we stay stuck.

There are keys to helping others get unstuck.  Coaches and therapists can help people work through messy powerful emotions. These are feelings that may be quite strong such as fear, anger, regret, sadness, resentment, or even rage. Carefully conquering repressed painful emotions can help an individual break through their emotions if they are supported to do this in a safe, non-judgmental environment. Specific techniques can be very powerful to help individuals work through this.

Here are some tips to help you get unstuck:

  • Be clear about your why-So think about why you want to achieve a specific health goal. No, don’t just think superficially like, “I need to lose 20 pounds so I can wear a bikini to the beach” or “I should cut back my drinking”. These may not serve you as a long-term health goal because they may not be the real why or they may not be specific enough. Thinking beyond this and about what may be behind that goal. This gets more to what you want in life and may better help you realize how doing nothing doesn’t serve you, can of a “why” to change. Using a technique called the 5 “whys” may help you to drill down and answer the why or the real reason behind why you may want to make a health behavior change. With using this technique, you answer the “why” question, but continue to ask “why” several times. For example. Why do you want to lose 20 pounds? Answer: So that I can look good in my bikini this summer. Why do you want to look good in your bikini this summer? Because my significant other will know that I worked hard to look good. Why do you want your significant other to know that you work hard to look good? Because I love them and want to model healthy behaviors so we can have a long, healthy relationship. Why is it important to have a long and healthy relationship? So we can be role model parents for our children. You get the picture. It came a long way from a short-term goal.
  • Avoid Internet Overwhelm-Let’s face it. It’s easy to get caught up searching and sifting through information on the internet. It can be especially overwhelming and unmotivating to someone stuck in information overload. Access a trusted health professional who can provide resources, context, and experience.
  • Use proven techniques such as journaling, tapping (EFT), positive affirmations, and meditation which can help you forgive yourself, let go of the past, and move forward. These techniques can be super powerful to help you get unstuck.
  • Get help and support to understand where you are stuck and to help you move through the areas where you may be stuck. Reach out to a friend whom you trust to talk through your feelings and emotions with. This may take a coach or therapist to help you. Support groups based on your personal health goal can be helpful for both support and learning tips.
  • Develop SMART goals-Getting help to define your goals and priorities are important. You can’t expect to do everything all at once. Health and wellness is a journey, not a sprint.
  • Align a new goal with something you already do-It can be helpful to add a new goal to something you already regularly and consistently do that aligns with a new behavior. For example, it could be adding something to your oral care routine that you do each day, or when you are preparing meals, wherever it makes sense.    
  • Develop short-term wins-Make it easier to move forward. Get some short term wins. These are things where you set yourself up for success to get small, easily achievable wins that you know you can accomplish.
  • Celebrate even small successes and reward yourself-Acknowledge positive accomplishments with positive rewards, not things that will distract you from your goal.

Being stuck can make you feel crazy. While you may know it’s the right thing to do, these mysterious behaviors can keep you stuck and drowning in anxiety or fear. While this article addresses mostly behavioral techniques, support also may need to include addressing the physical side of what may be keeping you stuck. This may require a functional healthcare practitioner or Functional Diagnostic Nutrition Practitioner to help you uncover hidden causes of stress and address them with diet, rest, exercises, stress management, and supplementation.

You can teach an old dog new tricks and unleash your superhero! It takes time, patience, persistence, and support to work through those negative, mysterious behaviors that keep you stuck from moving forward. You can get unstuck and achieve those healthy goals you dream of.

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