An Australian Neuroscientist Worked Out How To Keep New Year's Resolutions

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We're looking at the end of February soon, so I suppose this is a good time to ask - and how are your New Year's Resolutions going?

If you need an extra boost, Professor Selena Bartlett from Queensland University's Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation may have the answer to keep those goals long-term.

Professor Bartlett said many New Year's resolutions revolved around mental and physical health.

"Giving up smoking, drinking less alcohol, eating less sugar, losing weight, taking a break from social media, being less stressed or spending more time with family and friends rather than at work – these are all popular choices for resolutions," Professor Bartlett said.

Other popular goals are saving money, learning a new instrument or language, more "me" time, reducing debt or doing more for charity.

"Unfortunately while intentions may be noble people do put themselves under enormous pressure and then experience depression and disappointment when they cave in to their impulses," Professor Bartlett said.

"This is because our brains control our behaviour in a way unchanged since prehistoric times. This is especially true of how we respond to stress but it is possible to override the ancient brain."

Professor Bartlett says our brain silently drives our behaviour as if we are still ancient humans living in prehistoric conditions - and it feeds our addictive behaviours. So when we are stressed our brain seeks pleasure, which is quite often why New Year's resolutions are so easily broken.

"Everybody wants to start fresh with a new year but the brain has other ideas," Professor Bartlett explains. here's how the whole ancient brain thing works:

Pressures of work, finances, relationships, parenting and other responsibilities result in the body releasing stress hormones like cortisol. Over time, stress hormones significantly reduce the number of synapses in the brain which can impact our rational brain and reduce impulse control.

To counteract the damage caused by stress hormones, the "ancient", emotional part of our brain drives us to find pleasure. When we experience pleasure, our body is flooded with hormones like dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These bind to receptors in the brain and reduce the damaging effect of stress hormones.

To be led by your rational brain rather than the ancient brain (and resist impulses to break healthy goals) Professor Bartlett has these five tips:

  1. Be compassionate to your brain – it is an amazing, ancient organ that can be severely damaged by stress, especially in childhood while it is developing
  2. Get to know the brain – an awareness of how the ancient amygdala drives your behaviour is critical to overriding unhealthy impulses
  3. Identify when your ancient brain is taking over – in stressful situations acknowledge when you’re suddenly taken by the urge to eat comforting food, smoke or drink alcohol
  4. Replace food and alcohol with deep breathing, stretching, walking, running; any movement that feels good
  5. Reduce sugar and alcohol intake and increase cardiovascular and high intensity exercise – these will help to heal your brain of its stress-induced damage and build a strong, healthy body

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