“Such self-control!" Julie's friends exclaim when she declines a taste of the double chocolate truffle cheesecake. She enjoys the compliment until midnight -- when she sneaks downstairs and polishes off the last three slices.
"Just a few miles!" Becca tells herself as she puts on her sweats for a morning run. But instead she spends her exercise hour with a latte and muffin - and spends the rest of the day feeling guilty.
"This is my last cigarette!" announces Tom proudly, lighting up in the designated smoking area, at the far end of the parking lot - even though, as a graduate of three smoking-cessation courses, he knows that he can't trust his own words.
Nothing makes us feel worse about ourselves than when we experience a failure of will. We just know that if we could muster enough determination, we'd be able to kick that bad habit or lose those 10 pounds or get fit at last. And when we can't, we call ourselves losers. But maybe we're being too hard on ourselves. Science is revealing that body chemistry and genes influence more of our actions than we ever imagined.
Trusting in willpower to alter bad health habits, some experts say, is like believing the tooth fairy really delivers dollar bills."Willpower is just saying no, which is why it doesn't work." explains John Foreyt, Ph.D., a weight-control expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
Unfortunately, we seem to need willpower now more than ever. With cheap, high-fat, high-calorie food seldom out of sight, 55 percent of Americans are overweight. Teenagers, especially girls, have begun smoking in record numbers. And no society has ever been more sedentary. Forty percent of adults spend the majority of their day sitting, wither in an office or in a vehicle, every day. When it comes to improving our own health, good old-fashioned strength of mind doesn't seem to cut it.
Who's in charge here?
Will power may be theoretically possible, but our human physiology has an agenda of its own. Chemical pathways between the brain and the rest of the body make sure we eat enough and conserve enough energy from our food to keep us powered for the activities we participate in everyday, from breathing and digesting to more physical activities. An enzyme called leptin along with the hormone cholecystokinin, which stimulates digestive juices in the gut, gives us the signal to eat. We are also "wired" for times of scarcity, meaning that our bodies will put on fat and hold it in reserve for times when food is scarce. And, it's not surprising, the same pleasure centers in the brain that help us enjoy food are also turned on by drugs and alcohol.
Then there's family inheritance. Genes influence how our muscles respond to exercise, how much energy we burn, where we store fat, our metabolic response to overeating, and even our preference for spices or tolerance for ice cream.
But even the experts who understand the physiological influences on behavior don't claim that humans are helpless victims of body chemistry. In fact, some of them worry about the recent focus on genes and hormones, that seems to imply that we shouldn’t bother trying to improve ourselves. "The danger is that people will use the new research to excuse their overeating or undermine their motivation to build healthy habits," says Albert Bandura, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control (W.H. Freeman & Co., 1997).
Changing for Good
Most people, when they first pay attention to their health, start by taking a hard line. They starve themselves for a day or spend hours on the treadmill or go cold turkey on a 10-cup-a-day coffee habit. They've proved they've got willpower, but if you check back with them in a week they'll have returned to their old ways.
"The worst thing you can do is depend on willpower for more than a day," says Foreyt. "In the short run, it can put you in a high motivational state to deprive yourself in a diet or to start exercising or to quit smoking. But in the long run, you need to design a program that will change your life..."
Willpower ultimately fails because it's too much like punishment. "I don't know about you, but I hate the idea of being constrained," says Barbara J. Rolls, Ph.D., Guthrie chair of nutrition at Pennsylvania State University. "It's human nature. As soon as we're told we can't have something, we want it more than ever."
The self-punishing approach to weight control can be especially counterproductive. A recent study reported in Science found that the more lab rats were deprived of food, the more pleasure they took in eating. Everyone knows that feeling. After suffering the grinding, artificial self-control you use to keep from wolfing down a candy bar, the first bite tastes better than ever.
Better to be kind to yourself. Instead of shouting down your impulses, honor them, accept that you have them and find a better way to direct them.
Decide to decide
The decision to address your health is a kind of commitment. It puts you on record, even if it’s only to yourself, that you will do what you've decided to do. "Once you've made that commitment, you can begin to identify the barriers to your success and then problem-solve realistic strategies to overcome them," says John Jakicic, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University School of Medicine in Providence, R.I.
In general, there are two basic ways to create change. The first way is what we traditionally think of as willpower. Think of it in reverse. You practiced a certain activity, such as reaching for an unhealthy snack at certain times, or decreasing your physical activity, or lighting a cigarette, until that activity became a habit. You practiced doing that thing until your subconscious mind learned that this was a desired behavior, and then you began to repeat that behavior without having to consciously think about it.
That is how we create habits. And we get rid of those habits in the same way - by “practicing out” of them. For example, when we want to quit smoking in this traditional way, we need to practice not having a cigarette until that becomes the new unconscious behavior.
Those of you who have tried to quit smoking are familiar with how difficult “practicing out” of that habit can be. The same goes for changing what we eat, how we react in certain circumstances, and any habit really.
The Role of Hypnosis
The second way to create change is by eliminating the need to “practice out” of the habit, by going directly to the subconscious mind and, just like reprogramming a computer, instill the new behavior directly. Hypnosis is the primary method for rapidly creating permanent changes. Hypnosis works by creating an environment where the person is in a highly suggestible state where the hypnotist can give the client the suggestions that will make the desired changes a reality.
Changes are usually instant, and can be permanent with reinforcement. There are no harmful effects, and while it is not the least expensive form of treatment, it is definitely not the most expensive solution, and in many cases it is the best value.
As you become more successful, you become more motivated, Bandura says. Almost unconsciously, you begin to set up the circumstances that allow you even greater successes. And after a while you won't even need to think about your new, improved habits. Once you've programmed that change in your subconscious mind, you won't wonder if you can do it. You won't think about when you might do it. You won't remind yourself why you should do it. You'll just do it.∎
Karen Gray is a Certified Hypnotist, a Registered Nurse, and the director of Green Mountain Hypnosis in Lebanon, New Hampshire. For more information on how you can use hypnosis to change your life, you can visit www.greenmountainhypnosis.com, contact Karen at email@example.com, or call (802) 566-0464.