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Acupuncture Today – July, 2009, Vol. 10, Issue 07

Old Dogs Can Learn New Tricks

By Andrew Rader, LAc, MS

In Chinese medicine, we talk about patterns. We understand that over time, people take on patterns of behavior, emotional responses, physiology and thinking, and these become our picture. Think about how a meandering river, over large periods of time can become a canyon.

A tree falls in the forest, and thousands of years later as minerals are laid down in the pattern or template of the original tree, it becomes petrified wood. As humans, we have the opportunity to consciously change our patterns. We can make conscious decisions to act in a new way and literally transform our minds and bodies. In other words, we can change our habits. As health care providers, we are essentially working towards changing the old unhealthy patterns and creating new life affirming habits. If we can gain some more insight into this murky world of trying to help folks change their evil ways, then we will be that much more effective in bringing about sustainable benefits for our patients.

Unfortunately, there is strong evidence that once we hit our thirties, the desire and openness for making changes diminishes over time. The good news is that once we hit our sixties, that willingness actually may increase again. It is natural for this to happen. In our twenties we are deciding who to be. We are experimenting with careers, relationships and places to live. Everything in our lives is open to possibilities. We welcome new and exciting experiences. We travel, meet new people, try new foods and are willing to take on new challenges. Once we have chosen our careers and our mates, and have children, the urge to be open to change naturally slows down as our needs shift. Now we need stability, and change is more threatening. If we have taken on unhealthy patterns or habits, this natural diminishing openness towards change works against us. If we make it to our sixties, we generally have completed many of the obligations of raising a family or taking care of business and providing for others and ourselves. Now is the natural time to rediscover ourselves and be more willing to try new behaviors and seek out new experiences.

There is a plethora of advice on how to change habits. Because it is such a key aspect of our ability to express our human potential, it has been a focus in all cultures and traditions. If we don't know how to consciously change, we just become old dogs who can't learn new tricks. Let's focus on what has been found to work best for changing old, unhealthy habits.

Hypnosis is a field that has made enormous contributions to just this very situation. The basis of hypnosis is that there are underlying hidden beliefs, in the unconscious mind, that control all learned behaviors and habitual patterns. Take walking. Humans are born without knowing how to walk. Eventually we learn to walk. If we had to consciously think, "left, right, left, right, left..." whilst walking down the street, we would not be able to accomplish much else in life. Instead, walking became automatic, something handled by the unconscious mind, so that the conscious mind could be free to focus on other more important matters. Driving is another example of how this works. When we first are learning how to drive, our conscious minds are very much in play and we have to pay attention to where the pedals are, what gear we are in, the rules of the road etc. However, after a certain point our unconscious minds take over. All of us who have been driving for years have had the experience of being on the road then suddenly realizing that we don't remember how we got to that point. Who was driving the car? Our unconscious minds automatically drive, while the conscious mind is left to think about anything other than driving. The unconscious mind's number one job is our survival. It is in control of our habits. In order to make lasting changes in our habits we must work with the unconscious mind.

One way to do this is to note language patterns that imply hidden beliefs. For example, when someone says, "I will always be heavy because my whole family is overweight," this implies a hidden belief that they cannot change because it is in their genes. If they hold this belief, then there is not much chance they will make meaningful changes to their habits that contribute to the weight situation. One can shake up this core belief by asking the person some questions: Do all people who come from families that are overweight become overweight themselves? Do all overweight people come from families that are overweight? Are there any people who were once overweight who are now at a healthy weight? What would it look like if this belief were not true? What will happen to your weight if you continue to hold this belief? Do you believe that you have no control at all over this situation? What control do you have over this situation? These are all questions that are designed to shake up the hidden belief that keeps the person in the situation they are in. It is only when the core belief changes that real lasting change can occur.

There is an area of the brain that has been shown to be at play when we are confronted with information that contradicts our core beliefs. Imagine seeing someone you don't know smoking a cigarette, and you come up to them and say, "You should really quit smoking, it isn't good for you." How do you think they will respond? Every smoker over the age of 30 understands that smoking is not good for them, yet they continue to smoke.

Researchers at Emory University have found, using functional MRI studies of the brain, the area of the brain that is engaged when such a situation occurs. In their study they would ask a subject, while in an MRI, to look at information that appeared to be facts that disparaged their favored political candidates. The subject would tend to find a way to ignore the information. What the researchers found was that the area of the brain that was at work was not an area where logical thought would occur, but a location where emotional issues are worked out. In essence, they found the spin master of the mind. "The finding suggests that the emotion-driven processes that lead to biased judgments likely occur outside of awareness, and are distinct from normal reasoning processes when emotion is not so heavily engaged," according to Drew Westen, PhD, one of the researchers on the study.

This is where a smoker will sort out the contradiction of their knowledge of smoking against their actual behavior regarding smoking. This is how they can still feel good about smoking while knowing it isn't good for them. If they didn't have a way of feeling good about it, the behavior would be vulnerable to change. This is a confirmation for the power of the unconscious mind in propelling behavior that is illogical, such as smoking or bad food choices.

There are some natural steps in the process of making real, long-lasting behavioral changes. I have arranged them in this order:

Awareness of the issue: Until we become consciously aware of the old habit, there is not much to be done. As health care professionals, we may be the first to point out that a particular food or lifestyle pattern is not healthy. For example, we might tell our patient that going to bed at 1 a.m. each night and waking at 6 a.m. might be contributing to their fatigue and irritability. This might be news to them, so be gentle.

Desire to change: This is the critical step. Without this there is no hope. Sometimes fear of failure, fear of the discomfort of the change, or loss of the good feelings that came with the old habit will thwart the desire for change. Helping someone come to the point of wanting to change is a real skill. It helps to come up with three personal reasons why one wants to make the change. Not why one should make the change but why one wants to make the change. This is an important distinction. The "shoulds" come from the outside. The "wants" come from the inside.

Decision: To make the decision is the turning point. The word decision comes from the Greek root that means cut away from. To cut yourself away from the old habit is how one may look at making a decision. This is at the level of resolve. At this point, most of the hard work is done.

Perseverance: Hold the reasons for wanting to change in awareness as much as possible. Another very helpful technique is to focus on the positive feelings that one got from the old habit. It's the positive feeling that matters, not the old unhealthy habit. Smoking doesn't make someone relax; in fact tobacco is a stimulant and toxin and causes the opposite response from relaxing. In a guided visualization, take the person to the point where they would want to engage in the old habit. This is the decision point, then have them bring up positive feelings from some other event in their life and experience that actual positive feeling. Then link it to saying NO to that thought of engaging in the old behavior. The new behavior is now linked to the positive feelings, which include being free of the old behavior. Let the unconscious mind come up with three new healthy habits to replace the old one. This means that the person does not have to consciously think about it. No work involved, just turning it over to the power of the unconscious mind.

There are many methods from a multitude of traditions that enable people to make successful changes in their lives. It is worth our time and energy to study them and then apply them in our practices. Perhaps we can make some changes in our own lives on the way.

Click here for previous articles by Andrew Rader, LAc, MS.

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