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How to create good habits to get you through hard times

Life is tough. It's beautiful, then awful, then ordinary and sometimes boring. There are so many highs and lows that we experience from day to day. When under extreme stress, getting up to go exercise and eat a salad probably isn't at the top of your priority list. Some would say you are lazy or lack discipline. Others might say you just need to get motivated.

Coming from personal experience I can promise you that when I went through really stressful periods in my life, motivation is not what got me out of bed at 4 am every day to workout. Motivation is not what made me restrain myself from eating an entire pizza to myself. Why is it that when we become stressed we find it difficult- almost impossible really, to maintain our "normal" routine full of behaviors that keep us healthy and well?

There is a very logical explanation behind why this happens. Based on the famous neuroscientist Paul Maclean's theory called the Triune Brain Theory, the human brain is essentially split into 3 parts: the lizard brain, the mammal brain and the human brain.

The lizard brain is the "fight or flight" region. It is the part of the brain that regulates our blood pressure, body temperature, hormones, sleep, etc. The mammal brain which is also known as the limbic system is the emotional part of our brain. It deals with fear, arousal, anger, sadness, and sexuality. This is where the amygdala lives. The third and most evolved part of the brain is the "human brain" which is also known as the neocortex. This is where rational thought and all cognitive ability lives. This part of the brain controls your reasoning and impulse control.

When life is well and everything is as it should be, the human part of our brain works quite efficiently leading the way of the other 2 parts of the brain. You can make appropriate decisions related to your diet, limit your alcohol intake and limit how much social media you allow yourself to digest. You can focus on tasks and keep a routine.

But what happens when you are faced with stress- whether it is perceived stress (worry and anxiety) or actual stress (car accident, death of a loved one)? Your brain was not made to experience intense discomfort and still function optimally. When you face stress, your lizard brain kicks in and takes over even with perceived stress. Something that may not have even happened can cause this reaction. Your brain switches into fight or flight mode. Something called an amygdala highjack takes places. The amygdala is the part of the brain that processes fear, sadness and anger. The amygdala draws all the energy from the rational frontal lobe of the human brain to store it for use in the case of perceived threat. We aren't getting chased by lions or bears anymore but our brains are still wired to react that way. Rational thought is not necessary if the brain thinks it is a matter or life or death. This is why you experience brain fog, fatigue, body soreness and many other symptoms when you are under a constant state of stress. This is why eating healthy and caring for our bodies goes out the window when we are stressed.

It is absolutely essential to have certain habits ingrained into your brain so that when stress arises, your brain can function on auto pilot. You must prepare for the stressful times before they happen. Think of it this way: two people signed up to run a marathon. One trained for months leading up to the event, the other trained for just one week. Who do you think has a better chance of successfully completing that marathon? The person who repeatedly prepared themselves and their brain to still function rationally under stress.

Here are some ways to create your routine for times when stress hijacks your brain.

  • Create a morning and evening routine. Same wake times and same bed times. Every day. Yes, even on the weekends. Routines can include waking up and making a nice hot cup of coffee or doing 10 minutes of meditation or stretching before bed.

  • Create a consistent exercise routine. Whatever type of physical activity makes you feel good. This doesn't mean you have to be in the gym. It could be walking, hiking, dancing, gardening, playing with your kids at the park etc.

  • Water! your body is 70% water. All organ systems depend on H20 to function. Drink up often and keep your intake consistent.

  • Sleep. Our brains and bodies recover when we sleep.

  • Read a book. Fiction is a great way to escape a stressful reality for a bit. Or you can dive into non fiction and read something that is specific to helping you get through a stressful situation. Whatever you are going through- I promise you aren't alone and someone else has probably written a book on a similar situation. Learn how to grieve the situation and build a life beyond the stress and pain.

Life is tough. We experience death, abuse, betrayal, depression, pain, poverty. No one is immune to suffering. I say all this because some of you are making a daily decision to keep yourself stuck in your own pain and its preventing you from a future of happiness that is meant for you. Not making a decision to change is a decision in itself. Not choosing to get help is choosing to stay stuck right where you are. I know it's scary and maybe you are not sure what to do but know this: Life can be beautiful again if you let it. Good things will always be available to you if you actively look for it. Everything in life is temporary. If you're going through a storm you must know that the sun will shine again. So take one step to help yourself. One tiny little act of kindness to yourself.

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