The Neuropsychology of Lifestyle Prescriptions: What This Means & How to Create New Habits For a Fulfilling Life?

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The age-old adage, “Health is wealth,” has never been more pertinent. In our pursuit of well-being, lifestyle prescriptions have emerged as powerful tools for creating positive change. But what exactly are lifestyle prescriptions, and how can we overcome the barriers that hinder their adoption?

What are Lifestyle Prescriptions?

Lifestyle prescriptions are something we often discuss with our patients at HMP. They are evidence-based recommendations tailored to an individual’s unique needs, aiming to improve overall health and well-being (Smith et al., 2018).

They encompass various aspects of our lives, including:

  • Nutrition
  • Exercise
  • Sleep
  • Stress management
  • Social connections

These prescriptions are personalized and empower individuals to take an active role in their own health, much like what we do at HMP.

Navigating the Hurdles

Like all transformative processes, the path to adopting lifestyle prescriptions isn’t devoid of obstacles. Several hurdles can impede the adoption of lifestyle prescriptions. Busy schedules, lack of motivation, limited resources, and entrenched habits can all create challenges (Jones & Brown, 2020). Recognising and understanding these barriers is crucial for developing effective strategies to overcome them.

A pivotal factor in this equation is motivation, as it plays a key role in adopting lifestyle changes. Cultivating a sense of purpose, setting clear goals, and celebrating small victories can enhance self-motivation. Additionally, practicing self-compassion and embracing a growth mindset can help navigate setbacks and keep you on track (Dweck, 2016).

The environment we inhabit is also going to greatly influence our behaviour. Surrounding yourself with supportive individuals, seeking accountability partners, and making adjustments to your physical environment can all reinforce positive lifestyle changes. Creating a network of support can provide encouragement and guidance during challenging times (Brown et al., 2019).

However, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither are sustainable lifestyle changes. Gradual progress, incremental steps, and a focus on long-term sustainability are key. Embracing a holistic approach and understanding that setbacks are a natural part of the process can help maintain momentum and foster lasting change (Prochaska et al., 2015).

We all have a laundry list of things we know we should be doing to improve our lives, whether it’s exercising regularly, eating healthier, managing stress, or getting enough sleep. The challenge lies in transforming knowledge into action.

Something people often don’t realise is that neuropsychology can be a powerful ally in bridging the gap between knowing and doing when it comes to embracing the lifestyle prescriptions we previously discussed (which we also frequently talk about at HMP!).

This is because neuropsychology investigates the intricate relationship between brain functions and behavior. By understanding how our brains process information, regulate emotions, and form habits, we can gain insights into why we struggle to take action on our intentions. This knowledge empowers us to work with our brains rather than against them.

So, how does our brain impact our behaviors?

Primarily, our brain is a predictive machine; it uses past experiences and learnings to always guess what will happen next. This is an efficient way for it to navigate the world, minimizing the need for extra energy and resources when approaching each moment. This is why breaking old thinking or behaviour habits can be challenging. Old habits are energy-efficient, easy to act out, or fall into without much additional effort.

Our brains are wired with certain cognitive biases that can impede behavior change. Confirmation bias, instant gratification bias, and status quo bias are just a few examples. By recognizing these biases and actively challenging them, we can reframe our thinking and make more informed decisions aligned with our desired lifestyle changes. It takes energy, but energy is needed for change.

The motivation and reward systems in the brain also play a crucial role in initiating and sustaining action. Understanding how these systems work can help us design strategies to boost motivation and create meaningful rewards for our desired behaviors. Setting achievable goals, tracking progress, and celebrating milestones activate the brain’s reward pathways, reinforcing positive habits.

Our cognitive flexibility allows us to adapt to changing circumstances and make healthier choices. By enhancing our ability to shift perspectives, reframe challenges, and find creative solutions, we can navigate obstacles with greater ease. Practices like mindfulness meditation and cognitive-behavioral therapy can promote cognitive flexibility, empowering us to make consistent strides toward our lifestyle prescriptions.

In addition to our brains, we need to remember that our environment also plays a significant role in shaping our behaviours. By strategically modifying our surroundings and utilizing environmental cues, we can create supportive contexts that prompt desired actions (especially if it makes predictions inaccurate, so the brain MUST update to make sense of the new context). Habit formation is key—repeatedly performing desired behaviours in specific contexts can lead to automaticity and more efficient brain predictions, making it easier to stick to our lifestyle prescriptions.

So why do habits ensnare us, despite our awareness of their detrimental nature? Habits, often underestimated, leave profound imprints on our lives. They sculpt our daily patterns and, by extension, our overall well-being. It’s not uncommon for people to find themselves trapped in habits they know they need to break.

Truthfully, our comfort zones can serve as both a safe haven and a formidable barrier. Breaking away from familiar routines can be daunting, even if we understand the need for change. Fear of the unknown, uncertainty, and resistance to stepping outside our comfort zones can hinder our progress.

Habits often have emotional underpinnings, and breaking free requires confronting these attachments. Emotional connections to certain behaviours, such as stress-eating or procrastination, can be deeply ingrained. Acknowledging and addressing the underlying emotions is vital for moving forward.

Furthermore, habits have a remarkable ability to shape our automatic responses. They operate on a subconscious level, making it challenging to break free. Understanding the science behind habit formation and employing strategies like habit replacement and mindfulness can genuinely help us shift our behaviours.

Low self-belief can also hinder our progress. When we doubt our ability to change, we can become trapped in negative cycles. This is why cultivating self-compassion, setting realistic goals, and seeking support from loved ones or professionals can bolster our confidence and empower us to break free from those unwanted habits in which we feel trapped.

While getting “stuck” in habits is a common struggle, it’s not insurmountable. By understanding the barriers that impede change and implementing effective strategies, we can navigate our way towards adopting healthier and more fulfilling lifestyles.


References:

Brown, K. W., Ryan, R. M., & Creswell, J. D. (2019). Mindfulness: Theoretical foundations and evidence for its salutary effects. Psychological Inquiry, 30(3), 111-137.

Dweck, C. S. (2016). Mindset: The new psychology of success. Random House.

Johnston, S. J., & Mrazek, A. J. (2017). Neural mechanisms of reward, motivation, and habituation. In The Wiley Handbook of Cognitive Control (pp. 223-240). Wiley.

Jones, L., & Brown, M. (2020). Barriers and facilitators to healthy lifestyle change in adults with intellectual disabilities: A systematic review. Journal of Applied Research in Intellectual Disabilities, 33(1), 1-16.

Prochaska, J. O., Redding, C. A., & Evers, K. E. (2015). The transtheoretical model and stages of change. In Health behaviour: Theory, research, and practice (5th ed., pp. 125-148). Jossey-Bass.

Smith, A., Hay, P., Campbell, L., & Trollor, J. N. (2018). A review of the association between obesity and cognitive function across the lifespan: Implications for novel approaches to prevention and treatment. Obesity Reviews, 19(5), 655-668.

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