Written by: Tiffany Bartell
Healthy Minds QEP Director
Editor’s Note: The following articles are written by counseling professionals from Counseling Services in partnership with the Southern Accent.
Planning to start a new health habit? Here are a few things you should know!
As many as 44% of Americans make new health resolutions each year, but only half will succeed in what they set out to do, according to a 2020 research article on New Year’s resolutions published on PLOS ONE. Experts say that the key to making a healthy habit change is tapping into what they call “self-directed neuroplasticity.”
What we know about the brain is that it is plastic — or able to be changed and adapted. This is wonderful news for college students, as you are constantly receiving new information, and your understanding and thinking are shaped and adapted as you accommodate and synthesize the new data.
In a 2021 medically reviewed Healthline article, writer Stacey McLachlan outlines two kinds of neuroplasticity: experience-dependent neuroplasticity and self-directed neuroplasticity. She points out that the first kind happens when we practice a habit over and over again, and the second occurs as we self-reflect on our experience of doing a habit. When we practice healthy habits, we can unconsciously receive rewards and positive experiences, such as when we have a positive mood or feel proud of ourselves after exercising. By spending time in reflection, we can link our conscious thoughts and recognition of benefits derived from the activity to the habit that is being formed.
In my private practice, I often encourage clients to identify something that they always remember to do every day. We then see how we can link a new habit to the existing one in a process called “habit stacking.”
Habit stacking is simple. For example, if you always remember to take your vitamins in the morning, you could put a sticky note next to your vitamin bottle reminding you to do your relaxation breathing exercise right afterward. Or, if you have a hard time remembering to drink water but always take your backpack to class, try tucking a reusable water bottle in your backpack to carry with you and drink from throughout the day.
To follow McLaclan’s advice, try setting an alarm to check in with yourself at a time you’ve designated for a new habit activity. Or, set an alarm at the end of the day to help you cement your new habit by giving yourself an opportunity to reflect on how the habit made you feel and the positive effect of the experience.
If you are someone who works well with peer pressure, another way you can help yourself is to tell your friends about a new habit you are practicing or have someone be your habit-buddy as you start practicing it. Having an accountability partner or group can help you stay on track and turn the habit-building process into an opportunity for social connection as well.
You can build new habits for your health one day at a time. The habits that will stick are the ones that you do intentionally and integrate into the fabric of your life.