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When Old Habits Die Hard: The Science of Being Healthy

Shannon Harvey

A leading health researcher recently told me a provocative definition of the word “addiction.” He defined it as “continued use, despite adverse consequences.” In other words, you’re addicted to something if you keep doing it, despite the fact that it’s bad for you. If he’s right, then I may be in trouble. It means that, among other things, I’m possibly addicted to… filmmaking.

Ever since my husband (and co producer), Jules, and I decided to make another film, life has been mad. Despite the glamorous reputation that the movie industry has, the reality is far from it. We’re independent filmmakers, which means that in order to get our films made, we finance the production ourselves. We have to keep our “day jobs” running alongside our passion project. Throw two young kids into the mix (aged four and one) and ta-dah… mayhem.

The irony that the documentary we are making is about meditation and stress reduction is not lost on me. In fact it was because I’m meditating every day as part of this film project that I was forced to face a sore reality – that making movies is bad for my health. I’m 174 days into my documentary experiment which involves having a team of scientists track my progress and I’ve also just participated in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program – the program typically favoured by researchers who are interested in studying the health benefits of meditation. MBSR has a reputation for helping people to “wake up” and to see things “as they really are” and for me this started happening right from the start when meditation teacher Timothea Goddard, read out a poem.

There’s a Hole in My Sidewalk

by Portia Nelson

Chapter One
I walk down the street. 
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I fall in. 
I am lost… I am helpless.
 It isn’t my fault. 
It takes forever to find a way out.
Chapter Two
I walk down the same street.
 There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I pretend I don’t see it. 
I fall in again.
 I can’t believe I am in the same place. But it isn’t my fault. 
It still takes a long time to get out.
Chapter Three
I walk down the same street.
 There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I see it is there.
 I still fall in… it’s a habit.
 My eyes are open. 
I know where I am.
 It is my fault… I get out immediately.
Chapter Four
I walk down the same street.
 There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
 I walk around it.
Chapter Five
I walk down another street.

Despite being a health journalist with an autoimmune disease, despite having made a movie and written a book about taking an evidence based approach to finding good health, and despite knowing better, as Timothea read the poem, I knew that I had fallen into the hole in my metaphorical side walk. I had been dropping crucial hours of sleep in order to get a film grant application completed, I had organised a weekend shoot schedule because there was no other choice, and I was spending some days working in front of my computer writing and responding to emails for eight hours straight without moving my body in the way that I know I must.

It was an uncomfortable reality to face. I am passionate about the work that I do, but the long work days, unsympathetic schedules, and money worries all amount to continual compromises on the things that I know are critical for my health and wellbeing. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was time to walk down another street? Perhaps I needed to quit making movies.

Portia Nelson’s poem has remarkable parallels to a model of behaviour change studied by researchers. It turns out that when we’re trying to change our behaviour, such as quitting smoking or eating more fruit and vegetables, we move through a series of predictable stages.

Stages of Change

by James O. Prochaska and Carlo Di Clemente

Stage 1
Pre-contemplation – “I can’t”
You’re not intending to change anything in the foreseeable future.

Stage 2
Contemplation – “I might”
You’re starting to recognise that your behaviour is problematic and you start weighing up the pros and cons.

Stage 3
Preparation – “I will”
You’re intending to take action in the immediate future, and begin taking small steps.

Stage 4
Action – “I am”
You’re actively changing.

Stage 5
Maintenance – “I am still”
You have been sustaining the healthy action for at least six months and are working to prevent relapse.

Stage 6
Termination – “I have”
You have zero temptation and have sustained the change for five years. You are sure that you will not return to your old unhealthy habit.

My problem isn’t getting motivated to make healthy changes. My problem isn’t a lack of knowing how. My problem isn’t even getting started. My problem is making changes stick. But here’s the thing about both the poem and the theoretical Stages of Change model – neither of them make claim that change has to occur without set backs. In fact Portia Nelson’s poem is about having setbacks and the Stages of Change model shows that relapse is the rule rather than the exception.

At first this might seem like bad news. It would be easy to become discouraged and to think that getting back on track requires a monumental shake up and total life reorientation. But when you look deeper into the change research, you see that most relapsers don’t regress all the way back to where they began. Rather than lasting change occurring in a neat linear, step by step process, relapsers actually recycle through the stages, they learn from their mistakes so they can try something different the next time around.

Thinking of my own relapse into being a stressed-out, over-committed documentary maker compromising my health once again, I realised that this was part of my journey towards lasting change. I’ve been able to find a healthy balance between my work, life and health in the past and I knew I could do so again. With that in mind, I decided to adopt the words of mindfulness meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein, who says the three most important words for a beginner meditator are: Simply begin again. What I learned from doing the MBSR program and from the Stages of Change model is that beginning again doesn’t necessarily mean starting over. It means learning from mistakes and picking up where I left off.

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