Written by Dr Lynette Mackey, Dietitian and Behavioural Change Consultant to the LifeShape Clinic.

Thanks for tuning back in. Last month I introduced you to the concept that we use two different brain systems (responsive/reactive) to make a choice or a decision. You can think of these in terms of an executive decision system and a reactive or impulsive decision system. I also highlighted that when we are trying to change a habitual behaviour pattern, that if the balance of power goes to your more reactive or impulsive brain, then behaviour change is going to be hard. This is because at this choice point – we need to switch on our responsive brain and not allow it to be hijacked by the more automatic and habitual tendencies that are housed within our reactive brain! Otherwise, we will continue to do what we have always done, and fail to get ahead.

Changing behaviour is easier said than done. Have you ever wondered why you always end up doing exactly the opposite of what you planned when it comes to changing your eating behaviour? This is for three reasons.


  1. Your reactive brain can make faster decisions than your responsive brain. Our reactive brains are like super – efficient engines that are always ready to go 24/7. This is in contrast to our responsive brain, which is like a powerful engine that has to be switched on, and then requires a lot of energy to get started. Because our responsive brains take longer to “come online” our reactive brains can be off and calling the shots before we know it. This may lead you to reach for a muffin when you had actually wanted to choose a piece of fruit!


  1. Your reactive brain is always on the look out for quick-fix rewards. So if you have had a particularly tough day, and habitually reward yourself with your favourite great tasting take away on the way home; of course you will be more motivated to get take away and less likely to invest the effort to cook a healthy meal at home! In this situation your reactive brain’s short-term desire for pleasure can overpower your responsive brains desire to do what is needed to achieve your long term weight loss goals.


  1. It’s impossible to stop a habitual pattern of behaviour once you have started it. So, if you are not practised at paying attention to what you are doing, you may find yourself at the bottom of a packet of chips or finishing off a packet of biscuits and left wondering what just happened! The fact is, once your reactive brain releases a habit – its normal to be caught up in the moment and already doing exactly what you didn’t want to do! This is exactly what happens whenever your reactive brain takes the upper hand. In order to change your behaviours, its important to slow your reactive brain down so that your responsive brain has an opportunity to take the upper hand and change your behaviour.


All the clinicians at LifeShape completely understand how hard it can be to change your behaviour for the reasons that have been pointed out above. Why are they so understanding? Besides the fact that they are professionals who are devoted to their work and your well being – they have also devoted their time to understanding how these brain systems work. So if you have had a particularly stressful and demanding week, they will understand when you tell them that you may not have been able to stick to your healthier eating goals as planned. What’s more, they are also skilled at predicting when you are likely to slip up by listening to how you are managing on a week-by-week basis. They know this because they have studied the science that explains when people are likely to slip back into their old behaviours. As a result of their extra training, you can be confident that when they hear that you are struggling they will be able to recommend strategies that help you to slow down your reactive brain and engage your responsive brain. Please speak to your clinician if you are struggling with any of the above.  They have developed the skill set to help you to find your own workable solution to create change!  Next month we will dive more deeply into the process of behaviour change.