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With only 22% of us sticking to our New Year's resolutions - is it really just about willpower?

Posted on 14 January 2014

That time of year is upon us again. We started to see to see a hint of a New Year’s resolution waving at us beyond the mounds of festive fare and the half price tins of Quality Street during the Christmas festivities.  Now we are in early January with the very initial days of New Year’s resolutions behind us, is the resolve waning? And it is not just about the new diet, there are exercise classes to be attended, smoke free days to be embraced and new jobs to be sought.

With only 22% of New Year’s resolutions  actually maintained and incorporated into on-going lifestyle changes*, why do we find it so hard to say no to that extra piece of cake or that single nicotine filled puff that has us back outside in the rain with our favourite brand and lighter in our pockets?  Is it just down to our lack of will power or is there actually more to it than that?

How much we weigh and the relationship we have with our body image is unfortunately not as straightforward as counting calories, doing some exercise and therefore being able to maintain our optimum weight and feel really great about ourselves. It is the same with our relationship with cigarettes.   If the equations were that simple, we would all be happy with how we look and feel in our clothes, the biscuit tin would only merit an occasional and controlled visit and we would find it easy to gently decline that offered cigarette and proclaim ourselves non-smokers by early February . 


It is not just about willpower - many people who have great willpower in other areas of their lives experience their eating issues and addictions as being beyond their control. It is as if some part of them takes over and makes them eat that second helping or reach for yet another glass of their favourite tipple.  But why?

Recent research has shown that our unconscious is responsible for about 90% of our daily behaviour and that behaviour is driven by unconscious prompts that are outside our control. Diets don’t work because food is only part of the overall equation. We don’t just eat because we are hungry; we also eat because of these unconscious prompts that drive our relationship with food. It is the same with cigarettes, excessive alcohol consumption and why even the thought of showing up for a job interview can prevent people from seeking that new role that would literally change their lives. These unconscious prompts can hold us back from making the changes that would make our lives better.

So it is not about managing to dig up more willpower to achieve what we want, it is about pinpointing and changing these unconscious prompts that can lock us into the negative behaviours and habits that reduce the quality of our lives in many ways. 

So where do these unconscious prompts come from?    

The Unconscious Brain

The older brain system, the one that works on instinct and generates our habits is our unconscious self which tries to keep us safe and away from what we perceive as a potential danger and discomfort.  It uses past experiences to give context to present situations and is the part of the brain that controls our behaviour during times of strong emotional response.  

Hence in simple terms, if experiences from when you were younger led your unconscious to believe that eating chocolate was a good thing because it made you feel safe or loved, then no matter how much you consciously try to stop  over eating it,  your unconscious will motivate you to eat it in order to feel those positive feelings. This can explain why we continue to exhibit specific behaviours even though we know that they reduce the quality of our lives. 

So how can we change these unconscious prompts and in turn change the behaviour they drive? 

Cognitive Hypnotherapy

Cognitive hypnotherapy uses light trance states (just like daydreaming) to comfortably uncover the feelings, thoughts and memory patterns that led to the unconscious connecting either a positive or negative response to a certain stimulus. A good example of this, and one that many of us will identify with, is eating that chocolate bar to feel safe or loved, or conversely, avoiding public speaking because we felt humiliated when we stumbled over the words of a poem in front of the class at the age of 7 and everyone laughed.  Our unconscious will move us towards pleasure and away from pain; it is a fundamental element of our survival response.

Once these unconscious prompts have been uncovered, Cognitive Hypnotherapy draws on a range of proven techniques from different disciplines such as Psychology and Cognitive Theory to effectively reinterpret our responses to the thought patterns that drive our unconscious prompts. In effect, Cognitive Hypnotherapy interrupts these unconscious patterns so you are able to take control of your own behaviour.  


So if you find that your resolve is weakening in the next few weeks and that gritty willpower you brought with you from 2012 is dissolving, don’t be too hard on yourself. Without the help of a trained and qualified professional, it can be a very difficult task to alter those unconscious prompts that drive the behaviour you have resolved to change. That is why only 22% of New Year’s resolutions made each year are actually maintained and incorporated into on-going lifestyle changes.   

But the change you are looking for in 2013 can be made with the help of a Cognitive Hypnotherapist and with the number of professionally qualified therapists increasing; it should be possible to find one local to you. As always with choosing a healthcare professional, ensure that they are fully professionally qualified and a member of a professional body such as the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council (CNHC).  

Author:   Fiona Nicolson is a practising and professionally qualified Cognitive Hypnotherapist and a member of the CNHC. She is a member of the Editorial Advisory Board for the National Council for Hypnotherapy.

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