Counseling Psychology has often been called the science of how and why people change. But have you ever stopped to wonder why change is so difficult that it merits the dedication of an entire scientific field to it’s study? Adam, Fircrest’s newest counselor, has some thoughts.
Hello there! My name is Adam Wade-Garrett, Fircrest’s resident “geek interpreter” and de facto Dungeon Master for our staff’s monthly Dungeons & Dragons session. I’ll be joining Aynsley here on the blog from time to time to talk about a wide variety of topics, from specific mental health interventions like Geek Therapy, to broader concepts like values, spirituality, and neurodivergence. I’ll do my best to channel a little uncharacteristic brevity so that you don’t have to endure a twenty-page thesis when you’re just looking to read something on your lunch break, but in all likelihood my posts are going to be at least a little longer than Aynsley’s, so maybe go make a cup of coffee and come back. I’ll make it worth it.
Swimming Upstream: The Physics of Change
For something so universally-important, change can be an awfully complex process. There is overwhelming evidence that diet and exercise are two of the strongest correlates of mental and physical health and yet struggles with maintaining them are so commonplace that gyms will often intentionally oversell annual memberships because they know that most of their new January customers won’t be coming back. But how does this happen? Why is there such a disconnect between the part of us that genuinely wants to be healthy and the part of us that controls our behavior? You’d probably be surprised to learn that the answer to that question is the same as the answer to “Why am I safe if lightning strikes my car while I’m in it?”
Stay with me, it’ll make sense in a minute.
It’s pretty much common knowledge at this point that our nervous system operates via a complex network of electrochemical signals jumping from neuron to neuron at just...unfathomable speeds. There are a lot of factors that go into determining the speed at which that neuron fires, but because I promised I’d try to practice some brevity, I’m only going to draw your attention to one of them: myelination.
Myelination is a process that neurons undergo as they are activated. Each time a neuron fires, it releases a small amount of a substance called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) which both stimulates the production of new neurons and causes the currently-activated neuron to develop a fatty substance around it called “myelin.” This fatty substance insulates the neuron, which allows it to fire faster and more efficiently the next time it’s needed. Practically speaking, this is why practicing something makes it easier over time. The more you engage in a task, the more insulated the neurons involved in that task become, and the easier they fire the next time you need them. This is also why change feels so tedious and stressful at times when we compare it to our old habits: the neurons involved in the old behaviors are driving on the brain-equivalent of the Daytona Speedway while the brand-new baby neurons are offroading on horse trails. That’s not an exaggeration. The minimum speed at which a signal travels through a new neuron is roughly 4.4 mph, while the maximum speed of a fully-insulated neuron is about 270 mph. That’s like an out-of-shape jogger racing a Bugatti. But, that doesn’t answer the question of why change is hard, just the question of why it’s stressful. Most of us are willing to put up with a little stress if it means getting what we want. After all, work is usually stressful, but most of us do it anyway, if for no other reason than we don’t want to be homeless or hungry. So why are there some habits that we just keep returning to, even when they’re destructive?
It’s well-known that electricity follows the path of least resistance. While it is true you’ll probably be safe if lightning strikes your car, a common misconception is that this is due to the rubber in the tires insulating the vehicle. The truth is actually much cooler than that. Electrical energy is always trying to reach the ground and it will almost always take the easiest path to get there. The reason that you’re safe in a car if lightning strikes it is because the metal of the car is a much better conductor of electricity than you are and so is the electricity’s preferred route to the ground (If you’re interested in learning/seeing more about this, Google “Faraday Cage.” It’s wild stuff). The same is true of electrical activity in the brain. To vastly oversimplify the process, brains have a limited amount of available “voltage” and so, uninterrupted, this voltage will automatically direct itself through the neurons that are the most efficient. Unfortunately for people trying to make changes in their lives, the most efficient neurons are, by design, the ones that govern the old habits we’re trying to break. This gets particularly difficult and problematic when dealing with chronic stress, as stress dramatically increases the “voltage” available to the brain while often decreasing our ability to direct that voltage to more constructive places. Now, don’t get me wrong, a little stress is good. In fact, the brain actually needs stress in order to learn new things, but the more one’s fight-or-flight response is engaged, the faster we can do the well-rehearsed behaviors and the slower we learn new ones. That’s why repetition and practice is such an important part of learning martial arts. In a fight the brain needs to be able to access information quickly and reflexively but if those moves are not practiced often then the neurons telling us to grab their arm and hip-toss them are going to get outraced by the far more insulated neurons saying “punch them in the face.”
“So...It’s Hopeless, Then? You Can’t Fight Physics, Right?”
The snarky answer is that I certainly hope not or I really wasted my time getting this degree. The actual answer is fairly complicated, but to keep it brief, it’s a “kind of yes, kind of no” situation. No matter how talented the pitcher for the Yankees is, he can’t change the physics governing his throw. Friction in the air will always decelerate the ball horizontally, and downward acceleration due to gravity will always be 27 miles per hour per second. What he can do, however, is make the physics work for him. By putting a spin on the ball, he can rapidly change which part of the ball that wind resistance is acting on, making the air slow the left side of the ball faster than it slows the right side, thus causing its trajectory to curve (fun fact: you can’t throw a curveball in space because there’s no wind resistance).
So no, you can’t change physics, but you can make it work for you. In humans, one of the primary ways we do this involves a part of the brain called the “prefrontal cortex” (PFC). Many of the tasks that occur in the PFC involve consciously exerting control over “where the voltage goes.” It’s the part of the brain that helps us recognize and disengage from unhelpful or destructive behaviors and pivot to engaging in helpful and health-promoting ones. Interestingly, one of the primary structural differences between the brains of children and adults is the extent to which the prefrontal cortex is capable of communicating with the rest of the brain, an ability that isn’t fully developed until roughly 25 years old (funnily enough, this is why the research car rental companies do suggests that it’s a bad idea to rent to someone under that age). The prefrontal cortex is also responsible for helping us voluntarily access our motivations, ideals and values, which I’ll cover briefly in this article and in significantly more depth in another post.
You can’t fight electricity, it will always travel down the path of least resistance. One possible solution is to flip the breaker and cut off the electricity entirely (which is what a lot of men in particular are trained to do), but doing that too much results in numbness, dissociation and depression. We could also intentionally blow the fuse by upping the voltage, which is often what many people struggling with addiction do (“I’ll just do it so I can stop thinking about it”). But that fuse replaces itself over time and so that’s a short-term solution at best. Especially when there is a much better long-term option: mindfulness.
There’s a section of the prefrontal cortex called the “medial prefrontal cortex” that, if we’re being honest, doesn’t really get used that much in Western cultures. Western culture is all about speed, efficiency, or getting to the next thing and the medial prefrontal cortex is almost characterized by its ability to slow us down and settle us in the here and now. What’s ironic is that the things that most people at the end of life regret not putting more time into (self-care, relationships, children, community, etc…) are more marathons than they are sprints, and so it seems like maybe we can afford to lose a little bit of this speed if that means increasing our overall distance. The medial PFC helps us do this by increasing conscious awareness of what is happening in our body in terms of physical and emotional sensations. I alluded to this earlier when I mentioned that neuron insulation means that if there’s no interruption to the process, the most utilized synapses will activate, fire, and take control far before the new ones do. The medial PFC can provide that interruption. The issue, however, is that this process only works if the medial PFC is always activated, always watching, which it can’t be if it’s not being routinely exercised (think of it like a sensor in an electrical circuit, it doesn’t do much good if you’re trying to install it after the circuit is already overloaded). This is one of the reasons that mindfulness is now a common staple in nearly all modern therapeutic approaches. By giving the medial PFC a routine workout, we help it stay activated, which allows it to more easily draw our awareness to the fact that we’re slipping into old behaviors.
Interestingly, for a huge number of people, that’s actually the largest barrier. Once we’re aware we’re being pulled in an unhealthy direction, once the “sensor is tripped”, there are so many things we can do to pivot to doing the healthy thing. I’ll be giving more specific examples of these in a future post, but to put it into electrical terms, these interventions almost always involve either/both:
1. Waiting for the voltage to decrease.
2. Engaging in a task utilizing even less resistant neural pathways so that the electrical current is directed away from the unhelpful one.
Those might seem a little abstract, but almost everyone has experienced both in some form. In the case of the first, walking away from a situation until you “cool down” is an excellent example of simply waiting for the voltage to decrease rather than immediately acting on an unhealthy impulse. The second one, however, is my favorite.
I will preface what I’m about to say with this: I’m a couch potato. My father was a couch potato. My mother was a couch potato. It’s in the blood. And so I hate exercise even more than most people do. But something I do love is helping clients. I love watching them light up when they talk about something they care about. I love seeing them cry because they’re finally willing to admit that they deserved better than what they got. I love watching them say nice things about themselves with that sheepish smile that says that they’re just doing it because I told them to, but deep down they’re actually starting to believe it a little bit. And when I don’t exercise I have difficulty being the kind of person that draws those things out of them. I’m too anxious, too tense, too depressed, and they’re just less likely to open up to me as a result. It’s abstract, ethereal and difficult to visualize, whereas my hatred of having my heart rate get above 85 is right there on the surface and will yell at me just for putting on my jogging shorts. When I haven’t been engaging in my mindfulness practices, that surface hatred wins most of the time. But if I can create a small stopgap between that frustration and my behavior, just long enough to visualize the version of me I get to be as long as I’m taking care of myself, then the decision becomes a lot easier. One of the neat things about our personal values is that the genuine ones tend to be composed of a lot of very well-insulated neurons and so long as we know where to look, we can usually find some combination of them that can overwhelm the unhealthy/automatic ones. We just have to create space for them to speak. Mindfulness creates that space by helping us notice what we are feeling a split-second before we start acting on it. It gives us a window to question those feelings and whether or not acting on them will result in something good.
In short: mindfulness helps us see the circuit instead of us automatically becoming part of it and without it, we’ll just end up going wherever the current takes us.
I hope that this has been helpful for you. If you have any feedback, please comment on the post or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m also, as of right now, accepting new private pay clients, so if you’re interested in pursuing individual counseling services, you can contact me at that email or at 360-207-1544.
Also, if I’ve peaked your interested in mindfulness, you can find some basic exercises at the following link that you can do at home, your office, or anywhere you can find a quiet/peaceful space: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/consumer-health/in-depth/mindfulness-exercises/art-20046356