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

Hello again, welcome to another opportunity to delve into and unpack the process of successful behaviour change! Previously we explored the following concepts:

  1. Your reactive brain can make faster decisions than your responsive brain
  2. Your reactive brain is always on the lookout for quick-fix rewards and
  3. It’s impossible to stop a habitual pattern of behaviour once it has been unleashed…

At first glance, the statements above may support the following thinking: “No wonder I struggle”, and perhaps even, “is it worth the struggle, why don’t I just give up”, or “now I know why it’s all just been too hard to change…..”

The clinicians at LifeShape Clinic would like to let you into a little secret. Whilst the science may show that it looks like (and you may even sometime feel like you’re pushing a wheelbarrow full of rocks up a steep hill), the fact is that our toughest experiences actually teach us how to be our most extraordinary selves! If you don’t believe me, think back to the level of greatness that was shown by the Scientists and Engineers who bought Apollo 13 safely back to Earth. Against all the odds, they succeeded. Why? Because they didn’t give up (even though they would have surely and absolutely felt overwhelmed by their task at hand). At this stage you might be thinking; what has this to do with weight management?

It has everything to do with weight management and the clinicians at LifeShape want to help you to achieve extraordinary things as you strive to achieve your weight management goals. Last month we introduced the concept that the brain possesses two decision systems: a reactive and a responsive decision system.  Within this concept, the reactive brain also acts as  a “safety brain”.  Its’ role is to keep you safe, no matter what. How does it keep you safe? By keeping you within your comfort zone. How does it do this? By making you (and everyone else) feel a certain level of discomfort, whenever you try to leave it. Why, because the brain dislikes change. From an evolutionary perspective (think back to the day when we still lived in a cave) – if you took path A to get to the river to collect water and kept coming back alive, then for goodness sake, whatever you do, don’t change and take path B: don’t go a different way! Why not? Because there could be something along path B, lying in wait to eat you!! So, whatever you do – don’t change – stay within your comfort zone!  However, successful weight management requires that you leave your comfort zone.

The problem with staying within our comfort zones is that we don’t change anything. But what could possibly stop us from moving out of our comfort zone and changing our old habits? An answer that you may not expect is: the actual discomfort of the behaviour change process itself!

The behaviour change process is uncomfortable for the following reasons: When the reactive brain wants you to keep doing what you have always done (i.e. to keep you safe) and your responsive brain wants to change this old, worn-out pattern (i.e. because it wants to encourage you to change your old behaviours and enrich your life) – there is always going to be a level of discomfort – it is unavoidable! The unavoidable fact is that whenever there is conflict between the desires of the two brain systems (reactive / responsive) everyone feels uncomfortable, always. What this means is that it is normal to feel uncomfortable or anxious about change! I am going to expand upon this concept further by unpacking the diagram below.

In order to achieve the life that you want (the larger circle), it’s critical to remember that it is normal to experience a certain level of “clean discomfort” as part of the process of behaviour change. Think back to all those job interviews that you’ve endured in order to better your financial situation and career prospects. If you weren’t willing to endure the discomfort of going through the process, you wouldn’t have achieved your financial or career goals. It is no different when the goal is to achieve a healthier life by achieving a healthier weight.

At the start of your weight management journey – the smallest circle, your comfort zone, encompassed all of those behaviours that led to your decision to join the LifeShape Clinic. This circle was constricting, it contained all of your unhealthy habits and you were aware that it cramped your style; hence your decision to do something about it!  You knew that you aspired to move into the biggest circle because it embodies all of your desires: namely a healthier, fuller and enriched life. However, in order to move from the small to the big circle, you have to go through the middle circle. The middle circle embodies the behaviour change process itself. It’s here that you will experience the “clean discomfort” or a normal level of discomfort that is inherent to the behaviour change process; such as the discomfort of craving, for example, as you learn to swap your habitual unhealthy 2:30-3:00pm snack to a healthier option. Or the discomfort of time pressure, as you learn how to fit an exercise session into an already jam-packed schedule. The problem is, if the clean discomfort, that is naturally attached to the behaviour change process, upsets your balance, it turns into “dirty discomfort”, and before you know it you prefer the old habits of your comfort zone!

To successfully navigate the weight management process, it is imperative to learn to move forwards, even when you feel a level of clean discomfort, i.e. craving or time pressure. Otherwise you risk turning your level of clean discomfort into dirty discomfort and returning to the “safety” of your comfort zone. It’s almost like a game of snakes and ladders. The ladder is your level of clean discomfort, the snake your level of dirty discomfort!

If you find that you are struggling to navigate this process, please seek assistance from the clinicians at LifeShape. They will teach you how to successfully navigate the behaviour change process and achieve the healthier, fuller and enriched life that you desire (and deserve). They know that it can be hard to rock your comfort zone and they are cheering for you every step of the way.

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