• Caroline

Don't scratch the itch

‘Don’t scratch the itch.’ (Pema Chöndrön)

This month I wanted to write about a subject that affects us all namely how to change unwanted habits. For many mums that I work with this could be related to nutrition, exercise, mindset or parenting. The online world is flooded with tips on how to eat better, move more or be more confident or kind but it rarely gets to the crux of why we keep eating the Nutella, don’t stick to an exercise routine or shout at our children.

The best advice I’ve found so far comes from Buddhist guru Pema Chöndrön: Don’t scratch the itch. What on earth is this all about you may ask? If you’re tired of doing what you’ve always done and getting what you’ve already got, read on.

When we are in a heightened emotional state – eg tired, stressed, bored, frustrated, restless or angry - we often resort to activities that help us feel better. Common ones include food, exercise, binge eating, shouting, sex, alcohol, maybe even drugs. This creates new pathways in the brain: think of your brain as fresh snow on a ski slope and you’ve just made a brand-new ski path (or neural pathway).

Each time we feel any of the above emotions (or insert your own here), the brain chooses the ski slope that has already been made. You may have heard the expressions ‘neurons that fire together, wire together’ or the ‘path of least resistance’: every time I am stressed I reach for the cookie jar to help me destress. Eventually, we might even create unnecessary stress just to be able to have that cookie! And voila, a habit is formed.

If it’s a good habit, it’s not a problem. Perhaps you start each morning by doing a short meditation and yoga which calms your body and mind, thus setting you up for a productive and satisfying day.

But if it’s a less good one, it can be hard to change, especially if it’s an ingrained habit. Some of these habits can go back as far as childhood (that's a lot of repetition!).

The solution? Try not to go down the same ski path in the snow. In other words, don’t scratch the itch. Think of it like an annoying mosquito bite on hot summer’s day: you desperately want to scratch it but at the same time you know that it’ll only make the itching worse. So try your best not to scratch it in order to build new, healthier neural pathways.

This will take time and effort so remember to be patient with yourself as creating new habits takes time. Also, beware of the trap of creating a new habit while trying to change your existing one: last year I stopped drinking alcohol to improve my cardio fitness (which helped) but I switched to drinking lots of sugary soft drinks and ice cream instead which basically meant that I hadn’t changed that neural pathway.

This autumn I’m working on several small and big habits that I would like to change. I wanted to share three of them with you here to give you some ideas and inspiration:

-Eating less bread & cheese, and drinking fewer soft drinks: This is a childhood habit of mine so it’s been quite hard to change (perhaps yours involves eating too much sugar or crisps). My solution is to not keep things in the fridge that will tempt me (remember, out of sight out of mind!) but equally I’m not being too hard on myself when my circumstances change (eg I’ve just come back from holidays in France where it’s hard not to indulge in bread & cheese!).

-Setting better boundaries: I’m a people-pleaser and in a giving profession, as well as a mum, so this gets tested on a daily basis. Over the last few months, I’ve practised waiting with responding in many situations to give me a chance to really check in with myself before giving an answer. Being able to say no to things in a calm and kind way has been one of the most empowering lessons of my adulthood.

-Screaming less at my children when I get angry: This is not one I’m proud of but I’m sure many parents can relate. Children definitely know how to press our buttons but they can also be our greatest teachers, if we allow them. I’ve been practising the ‘pause’ button ie taking a few deep breaths whenever I feel the anger building inside me which has given me enough time to choose a different path.

I would love to know if you have any habits that you’re trying to change at the moment. If you need a helping hand, get in touch for a free consultation to see if I can help.

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