Changing one’s behavior can be the most challenging and difficult thing to accomplish. For this reason, I am writing this lengthy piece about this age-old struggle and ways to effectively deal with it.

Most people are aware that adopting and maintaining healthy behaviors increases the chances of living a longer and healthier life. Yet they continuously engage in unhealthy behaviors that results in just the opposite.

Seven out of 10 deaths in the United States are the result of chronic diseases, which for many people, can be prevented by making positive behavioral changes.  The positive changes doctors usually recommend are a balanced lifestyle which includes eating well, staying physically active, avoiding tobacco use and excessive drinking, and getting regular health screenings. Yet, how many people consistently follow through on these recommendations?

High levels of stress also adversely affect one’s mental health. In the United States, one in five adults live with mental/ behavioral health problems. Yet, why do so any people fall short of reducing stress levels and living up to their potential?

Let’s begin to answer this question by taking a closer look at why people who want to change, behave in ways that sabotage change ever taking place.   The alcoholic who wants to give up drinking takes one more drink and spirals downward. The overweight person wants to be in better shape yet procrastinates about getting started in a weight loss program. The burned-out worker who can’t say ‘no” without feeling guilty, keeps piling on the work against his better judgement. 

Why is it that so often the desire for self-improvement is there but the consistent follow through is not?  The reasons vary. Let’s take a look at what I think are some of those contributing factors.



The amygdala. a part of the brain, plays a key role in how one assesses and responds to emotional and environmental threats and challenges. It organizes one’s physiological response based on how the intake of information is interpreted. If one perceives being in a threatening situation, the amygdala will send information to other parts of the brain to prepare the body to either face the situation, or to get away from it, hence the fight-flight response.

However, sometimes the amygdala can act too strongly when experiencing such feelings as fear, anxiety, or anger by overacting illogically and irrationally. For example, one may make a decision solely based on personal emotions and the need to return to a state of equilibrium. Sometimes that state of equilibrium may not be the best but is what one is used to. Yet the amygdala doesn’t know if one’s state of equilibrium is ultimately useful or productive. All it knows is that it’s purpose is to strive for equilibrium.


People like to be consistent in their thoughts, ideas and beliefs about themselves and their world. When those values or beliefs are not in sync with newly introduced values and beliefs. one makes every effort to line them up again. Therefore, if one views oneself as flawed, weak or worthless, and then starts to experience accomplishments, one rejects this dissonance. Here the idea is that though it may feel bad to fail, it feels even worse to succeed. Sameness is favored over the introduction of something new.

It cannot be overestimated how one’s behavior exhibited today is the product of years of past programing. This need not be the result of past traumas. It can come from the repetitive messages, both good and bad, from parents and other authority figures throughout one’s growing up years.
The effects of these experiences can linger on throughout adulthood. Past experiences that are long gone, can still influence one’s cognitive and behavioral view of oneself and one’s world on a daily basis.
How often has one been adversely influenced by childhood experiences, influencing choices made as an adult?  This does not mean that one is weak or flawed by rather programed by repetitive messages from flawed individuals from their past. 


It is not unusual for one to intellectually know that behavior exhibited is self-defeating yet unable to change that behavior regardless of the best of intentions or efforts. The results are that these behaviors become more entrenched. The mere mention of the word change can make one feel uneasy. This fear of an unknown, with no guarantee that life will be better, reinforces resistance to change.  The result is being torn between conflict of wanting a better life and being resistant to experiencing the initial uncomfortableness of attempting change.


When one attempts to take the necessary steps of better controlling one’ own maladaptive behavior, outside forces may resist such attempts at change.  One pays little attention to the fact that others in the relation have their own unique history and backgrounds that affects how they relate to us. Therefore, any change one makes influences how those others relate to us.

It’s paradoxical when it is revealed that no matter how much others may want you to change, they resist themselves changing in order to adjust to the new you. Therefore, there can be unconscious pressure from others to remain the same.


Exterior factors that one has little or no control over can strike at any time. The common reaction to this stress varies, from person to person. It depends on how one is wired. One can overreact due to anxiety sensitivity. When one experiences anxiety sensitivity, any change brings out fear related sensations. This can be manifested in a variety of ways that include anxiety, depression and somatic ailments. These ailments unconsciously act as a defense in order to avoid changing.  For them, changing behavior results in an uncomfortableness that can be overwhelming.  


We talked at length about the various barriers to change. Though positive change is desired, it comes with no guarantee that the desire change will bring about positive results.  Therefore, attempts at changing behavior can illicit fear that can be emotionally paralyzing.  

The perceived rewards of change have to be greater than the rewards of staying the same. If not, one would unconsciously settle for the secondary gains of not risking change.


Thinking of past setbacks and perceived failures often results in falling short of staying motivated to achieve positive change. Lasting change takes time. When not achieved in one fell swoop, there is a tendency to fall back into old negative thinking about one’s ability to change. One tunes out anything positive and overgeneralizes one relapse as all defining.  This cognitive distortion occurs when one minimizes positive efforts and maximizes and distorts initial setbacks. 

                          HOW CHANGE TAKES PLACE                                                                                 


The brain’s nervous system has the capacity to change, reorganize or grow its neural structure to adapt to the changing environment. This means that the brain has the ability to rewire itself in order to learn and experience new things. One’s personality is usually intact by age three years, but continued behavior change is possible throughout life.


You are what you practice.  If one practices being calm in stressful situations, the brain will create neuron pathways which will set into motion calmness when stressful situations occur. Though there is a natural ability to change behavior regardless of age, this doesn’t mean it will come easily. Practice is the key one way or another. If one practices negativity, that becomes one’s practiced skill. Consistently practicing small positive achievable goals can have the same results. It all depends on what is practiced.


Change rarely occurs fully on a single first try.  When the desired changes do not occur as quickly as desired, one may become hard on oneself, thus reinforcing old self-defeating ways of thinking. One needs to realize that in attempting change, it is normal to move back and forth from old and new behaviors. Setbacks should be viewed as a learning experience and not be viewed as a failure. 


More often than not, behavioral change occurs in small increments, over time. However, there is a propensity to want to make big changes too quickly. Attempting big changes all at once is resisted vigorously. Taking small steps repeatedly can strengthen the chances of success. Small goals that are achieved moves one toward the ultimate goal one wants to accomplish.


Don’t forget, “one shoe doesn’t fit all”. If one way of reaching a goal, try another.  What makes change more perplexing is that what influences behavior change in one individual, does not necessarily influence change in another. Obviously, there are many underlying influences on behavior change that bring about different results, at different rates, with different people. For some people, avoiding loss is more motivating than attaining a gain. Examples can include fear of losing a relationship or fear of dying of a terminal illness.


 Focus on self-improving yourself. Focusing on how others need to improve is a waste of valuable time and energy. With the many barriers to changing behavior, it is important to put the energy into changing oneself and not wasting time and energy in trying to get others to change in ways one wants them to. 


Positive relationships are important. Recent studies indicate that people you spend time with affect your habits, whether good or bad. Though no relationships are perfect, positive relationships can help you grow emotionally and assist in further defining oneself in a healthy manner. However, be aware to distance oneself from negative people in that they can negatively affect one’s mental health.  

 In order to have the greatest impact, these relationships should be with people with common interests and values. They should reflect the kind of behavior from others that one desires to emulate.


Trying to change too much, too quickly, is a sure way to failing. The brain will ferociously resist anything it experiences as too much for one to handle.  Behavioral change is rarely a discrete or single event.  More often than not, behavioral change occurs gradually, over time.

Therefore, it is important that one makes a commitment to the time it will take in order to accomplish whatever one’s goal is, regardless of the setbacks. One needs to firmly establish what it is that one wants and how one is going to get to accomplishing it. This is a starting point.


Remember that though human behavior is malleable, there is also an underlying pull toward a continuation of one’s personality over time. This contradiction resolves itself when one realizes that persistence doesn’t equate permanency.  Persistence can be fragile. Positive outcomes that seem set may be circumvented at a moment’s notice by a sudden turn of events.  At those times, redirecting oneself without judgement, can set one back on track. Consistency and practice 

Once achieving positive behavioral changes in a certain area does not mean one need not continuously work at it. Drawing back to old maladaptive behavior can easily reoccur.  Though one may achieve positive behavior changes, it does not exempt one from life’s struggles, such as possible illness, relationship conflict, and /or financial difficulty. Consistent positive practice over a period of time will reinforce healthy behavioral change. 

With the struggle and difficulty that comes into achieving positive change, the question is why struggle to achieve positive behavior changes in the first place? One answer is that the quality of one’s life would improve on all levels. This would also better prepare one to deal effectively with those unexpected struggles in life.  The result is to have a stronger sense of self.  Being in control of one’s destiny rather than being control by outside influences, past and present makes one more authentic. The essence of life is to know thyself and accept and embrace who that is.