Ever heard of homeostatic resistance? Homeostasis comes from the Greek words for “same” and “steady”, it refers to the processes that living things use to actively maintain fairly stable conditions necessary for survival. If it’s a hot day and you go outside, you’ll sweat to bring your body temperature back down. We can thank homeostasis in our body for keeping things “normal” and steady.
When it comes to making personal changes and improvements though, homeostasis can work against us. To put it simply, homeostatic resistance is our tendency to return to our “normal” state, our old way of doing things, when we try to make changes to our behaviours.
If you’ve ever gone on a diet and lost weight, only to put it all back on later, you’ve experienced homeostatic resistance. Humans don’t like change, and even positive changes are met with a degree of resistance by our pattern-matching supercomputer upstairs, so this explains why we humans tend to backslide into old patterns or habits.
If you are trying to make positive changes in your habits, how can you overcome the tendency to allow homeostatic resistance to pull you back into the old habits?
Rather than just focusing on internal changes like positive thinking and your own motivation, you can take action, changing not just your own thoughts, but also your environment – external things that are outside of your own mind – to make it physically difficult to go back to your old ways.
Here’s one example of how an environmental change can help support a good habit. Let’s say you’re working on improving the quality of your sleep. You recognize that lack of sleep is a major contributor to daily stress, and perhaps bad sleep habits have been affecting you mentally and physically. And perhaps you’ve decided to try my advice to stop checking your phone if you wake up at night. What actions can you take to help make it easier to keep this promise to yourself? You might decide to start leaving your phone out of the bedroom at night, perhaps buying an old-school clock radio to put on the bedside table. The kitchen is a great place to charge your phone overnight. And set your phone so that the alerts don’t go off at night. This way you’re not just relying on your own motivation, but you’re making some physical changes to your environment that will help you stick to it. And let your friends know that from now on you will be keeping your phone turned off at night. That adds a little social support and accountability, as well as helping other people to understand that you won’t be replying to messages at 2:00 AM anymore. (Trust me, they will secretly respect you for this bold move.)
By doing things like these, you’re like James Bond’s Aston Martin in Goldfinger, throwing a smoke screen behind you so that homeostasis will have a harder time catching up and pulling you back to the old way.
These types of environmental (lifestyle) changes are a big component of relaxation training. That’s why I give lots of homework and exercises to practice relaxation techniques in the real world, to make real, lasting changes, not just in the way you think, but in the way you structure your life so that you’ll have less stress and make it harder to go back to the old, stressful ways of doing things. That’s how you gradually change those old mental patterns.
Homeostatic resistance fools your brain into thinking your old habits are good: even things like smoking or avoiding social situations are perceived as “wins” in the resistant mind because old habits are very comfortable. So it’s important to do everything possible to put some distance between your new habits and your old ones. I think you get the picture.
The Personal Stress Action Plan you receive on your first consultation with me has over 50 things that you can start doing to actively change your environment and pave the way to less stress. Things that can make the old patterns less appealing, so that you develop a preference to do things differently because it feels better and activates the dopaminergic reward pathways in your brain.
The evidence from behavioural science shows that making changes this way is at the root of permanent positive change that overcomes homeostatic resistance.