The neuroscience behind why new years resolutions don't often work, and what does!

The neuroscience behind why new years resolutions don't often work, and what does!

Happy New Year! This time of year resolutions are a hot topic, and health goals statistically top the charts. Creating meaningful and lasting transformations at the start of a new year seems like a worthwhile intention. But in reality, approximately 80% of new years resolutions fail. Why is there this disconnect between intention and reality?

Well, it’s largely about how we approach our intentions. We live in a capitalist grind culture that glorifies striving hard for your goals. Productivity is worshiped, while rest is seen as an inconvenience. These ideas permeate into so many areas of life… our work cultures, media, the wellness industry, etc. Even those of us who don’t buy into grind culture, have certainly internalized aspects of it. 

But this mentality actually weakens our willpower and sets us up for failure, while rest, pleasure, and self-compassion are superpowers that help us accomplish our dreams. 

Let’s get into some neuroscience to illustrate…

The prefrontal cortex is responsible for our conscious willpower (aka the resolution actualization zone), while the more primitive limbic system is responsible for our unconscious emotional power (aka the brains autopilot, with previously established habits and routines). The prefrontal cortex takes a lot of energy to function, and as such, the limbic system tends to have a stronger influence. Just like our muscles, we can strengthen our willpower, but the prefrontal cortex can get fatigued and needs rest as an important part of the growth process. 

So when we have too many resolutions and/or try to force change that is too stark, we can literally overload our brains. Then our limbic systems and therefore autopilot habits take over. We do ourselves an even greater disservice when we approach ourselves and our goals from a place of inadequacy and self-punishment. Such emotional attacks can activate the sympathetic nervous systems’ “fight/flight/freeze” response. Moreover, chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system wreaks havoc on our bodies and minds, and has been linked to high blood pressure, mental health issues, and autoimmunity. This mentality is a perfect recipe for failure, and moves us away from, rather than toward better health. 

We cannot punish, shame, and restrict ourselves into wellbeing. There is a gentler and more successful pathway. When we incorporate pleasure and self-compassion into our wellness practices, they are exponentially more likely to become lasting habits. Self-compassion and pleasurable activities both increase our serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin levels (happy and calm hormones), and decrease cortisol levels (a stress hormone released during sympathetic nervous system activation). And, these happy hormones are crucial for the proper functioning of the prefrontal cortex. With this approach, we can effectively encode new habits while enjoying the process! 

Even as an herbalist, I used to really struggle with maintaining my health practices. I had the roadmap to wellness, but I couldn’t get myself to follow it consistently. Then to add insult to injury, I would be really hard on myself about it! I finally found a life hack that helped me hit my stride… I started to have fun with my wellness practices. I made them tasty, lush, and exciting so that I looked forward to them every day. I also began to release perfectionism and was kind to myself in the process.

Do you love to cook? Make it your goal to turn health foods and herbs into culinary delights! Do you like to take baths? Turn your soaks into rituals with epsom salt, herbs, and candles, and while you’re at it, bring along an herbal mocktail in a champagne flute. Keep forgetting to take your tinctures and supplements? Be like a kid and find the most delicious ones to take (flintstone vitamins anyone?). Trying to get into a movement regimen? What kind of movement has felt fun to you? Maybe instead of pressuring yourself to work out, you can have daily dance parties to your favorite music. And most importantly please don’t shame yourself when your practices ebb and flow, because they most certainly will. Remember that rest is a critical part of health, including the health of the prefrontal cortex - so try not to overwhelm your brain with self-judgment when your body asks for the rest it needs.

I’m passionate about helping folks who struggle with inconsistency and self-criticism, to incorporate herbalism and nutrition into their lives in ways that light them up! My clients and I co-create actionable plans to transform their self-care routines into self-love rituals. Cultivating delicious wellness practices that you look forward to, is how you form lifelong healthy habits. 

Each new year and each new day, we have the fresh opportunity to bring a little more mindfulness to our lives and our goals. We can strengthen our willpower, knowing that rest, pleasure, and self-compassion feed that muscle much much better than grind culture and the inner critic ever could! 

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