As 2021 comes roaring around the corner, millions of people begin reflecting back on times past, where they are now, and what they’d like for the future. We’re sure you’ve been there–those feelings that have you saying, “Oh my god, I’ve dealt with this long enough! This year is going to be different. I’m going to put in the effort and make a change.” You might buy that health wellness product from the ads in your newsfeed, buy that personal training package, or start that fad diet that promises inches off your waistline. Well, we’re also sure you’ve been here too–that you stick to things for a few days, weeks, or months but the only guarantee that you’re experiencing is the one you’ve experienced before. You’ve fallen off track for a million reasons and have returned to old ways…and all the old problems you were trying to escape on January 1st.
The human body HATES change.
Is this news to you? Well, perhaps you have heard of something called “homeostasis.” Homeostasis is a concept used to describe many of the checks and balances your body utilizes to keep its systems regulated. You can think of homeostasis like the thermostat in your home. If you set the thermostat at 72F and the termperature falls below that, the heater turns on and brings the home back to 72F, stopping the heater before it gets too hot. There are homeostatic “set points” for many things like blood chemistry, blood pressure, muscle tone, sleep cycles, and more.
Like a stream creates a canyon over a thousand years, one small habit of yours can result in extreme health situations years from now.
The human body differs from the thermostat in your house is that the homeostatic control points can shift in response to prolonged pressure. Back to the thermostat analogy, if you lived in a place that was 80 deg year-round, it’d be as if your thermostat adjusted from 72 to 80 without you ever touching it. Your body can do the same thing. If your diet and lifestyle are unhealthy and your doctor sees your blood pressure running high, this is because your body has made high blood pressure the new normal and will work to preserve it even if your blood vessels and heart become damaged in the process. Researchers have begun to use the word “allostasis” to describe situations where the body has become mal-adjusted to preserve an altered state and the applications of this are many. From drug addiction, mental illness, metabolic syndromes, and more, allostasis is a reflection of how the human body hates change, even if not changing may result in dysfunction or death.
Homeostasis: Shield or Glass Ceiling?
Perhaps you can see a little bit of how your body resists change. The concept of homeostatic control conveniently explains why you won’t become diabetic from eating 6 slices of birthday cake on your big day; why you won’t get emphysema from a single pack of cigarettes. Homeostasis also shines light into why addicts get withdrawal when deprived of their drugs and why those “extra” pounds go away when you diet but return when you stop. You see, the body itself doesn’t have great long term memory or ability to predict the future. Most people are born perfectly healthy and, over time, are exposed to many unhealthy pressures that cause disease. The body uses homeostasis as a survival tool because sudden change can be deadly. Let’s say you have high blood pressure. How much does each pill lower your blood pressure? Not much. If you overdosed on your meds and caused your blood pressure to plummet, you might pass out! Now take an example of trying to lower your blood pressure through diet and exercise. How many days would you need to stay on track to bring your measurements within a healthy range without medications? Depending on how elevated things were, it may take months or years. Homeostasis acts to resist even beneficial change.
The Mysterious Black Box
Turns out, our body isn’t the only thing that can resist change; our brain can as well. If space is the final frontier, then your brain is that uncharted territory within your body. Luckily, we don’t need to understand exactly how your brain works in order to notice its tendencies and attempt strategies to overcome undesireable behavior. How much do you prefer the comfort of the familiar, the predictable, or the constant? Even if you enjoy the excitement and fear of the new and unknown, most of us have habits and consistently return to them. After all, that’s why they call them habits, right? If you’ve ever took on a self-improvement journey, you already know that habits are hard to change. They can act like an invisible, gravitational force always working to bring you back to Earth no matter how much you want to reach for the stars.
The solution to making change possible is to accept and become comfortable with being uncomfortable. Change is uncomfortable. It is often unfamiliar feeling. Change can bring about feelings of pain, anxiety, anger, and exhaustion. Our body and minds usually operate to avoid these things. Luckily, our minds also hold an amazing power to defy the laws of homeostasis.
Change Your Mind, Change Your Life
How long does it take for you to change your mind about something? It can happen in an instant. Let’s say you smoked cigarettes and then, for the first time ever, saw the commercial demonstrating the difference between a smoker’s lung and a normal lung. The thought of having those shrivelled, blackened, moldy-looking sacs inside your chest made you sick to your stomach. In an instant, you decided you didn’t want to smoke anymore and you wanted to quit. That decision was made in a few seconds time. Over the next few months you tried to go cold turkey but were shocked by how sick you felt, how much you craved a cigarette, how little things you never noticed before reminded you about smoking and, in turn, increased your desire to smoke again. Some days you go back to smoking like you always did but that disgusting thought about your lungs is still there. You still want to quit but you are having difficulty coping with the discomfort of this unknown and unpleasant process of quitting. Luckily, your doctor prescribes you some nicotine gum and helps you make a plan to progressively cut down week per week. Your therapist helps you learn mindfulness exercises to control your urges, redirect your anxieties, and crave the feeling that comes with knowing you are needing cigarettes less and less.
How to Smash Your Goals for 2021
There are many ways to grow and meet your goals, but the universal truths are that you need to 1) change your mind that sticking to the familiar is not conducive to your goals for change and 2) you must grow used to the idea that discomfort will be part of your journey.
At Indie PT, every one of our clients comes to us because they are looking for expert help improving their physical health. A majority of them struggle against challenges like: treatments cause a short-term increase in pain or the exercises are VERY uncomfortable. Because we know how hard change is to make permanent, we don’t simply blame the client for struggling like some other clinics will. Struggle is a requirement to improve. Our service philosophy helps guide clients along their road to success, gives them tools to manage anticipated discomfort, and time to realize the amazing progress that is being accomplished.
No matter if your New Years Resolutions are related to health, work, or personal life, realize that you will sabotage your own plans for success if you allow it, know that you can gain powerful leverage by changing how you think, and, remember, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Happy New Year! You can do it!