New Year Resolutions and Limbic Lag

As we lead up to New Year's Eve, many people take some time to make new Year resolutions.  Some make impossible resolutions only to be disappointed with themselves for not keeping it, whilst others make resolutions knowing that they won’t keep it.

So let's think about making a resolution- it is a resolve to change something. It means that we can identify at least one thing in our lives that we want to change. 


 Although the structure of the brain is quite complicated, in simplistic terms, there are two parts to the brains namely,

1.      The neocortex, which is located in the front of the head,, and receives and stores information for decision making and remembering.

2.       The other part is called the limbic system which controls all the automatic systems of the body and the emotions.

 Most importantly, the limbic system controls the survival responses, i.e., “fight or flight.” When a person feels threatened, these protective responses tell him/her either to defend himself/herself or to run away. The limbic system does not have a memory like the neocortex, not knowing the difference between yesterday or 30 years ago.  This explains why some of our childhood traumas still trigger so powerfully today. It is the limbic system that is most affected by our beliefs, behaviours and addictions, and it can be negatively programmed through traumatic experiences, such as growing up in a dysfunctional family.

 Events come through our senses and are fed into various parts of the brain. The limbic system colours or tags these events with degrees of response as either safe or dangerous. If tagged dangerous because of past trauma, either real or imagined, it reacts by creating anxiety or depression. If the event is tagged having to do with survival, the limbic system can create a focused craving for behaviour that has been associated with survival in the past. The craving focuses our attention on that behaviour until we feel safe or normal again. Thus an addiction is created. Addiction is not about ‘getting high’, but it provides a way to feel normal (free of stress). The conscious mind learns to cooperate with the survival behaviour (addiction), and protects it from being challenged by a filtering process called denial. The result is the addictive brain.

 The limbic system learned that having needs in a dysfunctional family resulted in vulnerability, hurt, abandonment, and isolation. In order to survive day after day in a dysfunctional/threatening atmosphere, a person has to find a system of thought that will allow for survival. Every time a feeling of vulnerability is experienced, fear creeps in and warns, “Danger!” Feelings of fear and panic signal you to flee from possible hurt. This limbic process responds automatically and subconsciously. Even after the painful or traumatic situation is over, the subconscious still believes that “If I have needs and trust other people, I’m going to get hurt and I won’t survive.” When trust issues come up today, the limbic system reacts as it was programmed to perceiving fear of vulnerability.

  Even though a person discovered false beliefs, uncovered the lies and finds and knows a new truth, there is a time lag between what the limbic system believes, and what the neocortex has learned. This is called limbic lag, a process that can be anywhere from a couple of months to years, but it will get shorter as the person continues to challenge the false beliefs, (traumatic memories) and risk trusting people. A person, for example, may have fear and panic attacks, but once he/she goes through them without doing the old behaviour, his/her limbic system will say, “Oh, we went through that and actually survived.” The next time he/she experiences the fear it will be less, and he/she will be able to make a good choice, rather than overreacting with a “fight or flight” response.

Old automatic habits aren’t changed quickly or easily, and are stronger if a person is tired. Many recovering addicts and trauma survivors have programmed the survival part of their brains with thousands and thousands of instances of avoiding unwanted thoughts or emotions, choosing not to “fight” with their issues, but to take “flight” into their addiction. Over time, this “flight” pattern becomes an automatic reaction. With a new identity based on new beliefs, they can change that ‘flight’ pattern or re-programme their limbic system.

 Change happens one decision at a time. To begin to break the ‘flight’ pattern and decrease the time of the limbic lag process is listen to what your mind knows, and do what is best or right rather than what the emotions tell you would feel good to do (drugs, alcohol, sex, food),

 It is comforting to know that there is a physiological reason why our feelings do not automatically come into line with our rational thought. This could be quite reassuring to us as we think about our New Year resolutions or as we may be struggling with our emotions after we have made a conscious decision to change a behavioural pattern. Change will not happen overnight even from the physiological viewpoint,

 However, when we decide to change, we do need to be kind also to realise that through the limbic lag, there is a delay in our bodies catching up with our mind.  A change of habit needs 21 days of consistent change before the body finally acknowledges the changes. We need patience and perseverance. Psychological/emotional well-being can bring forth positive or negative physical reactions in our bodies, and therefore there is a strong link between mental and physical health.

 The body systems interrelate with each other to ensure an organism functions normally. The brain receives information from other body systems to ensure proper functioning of the body. Examples of body systems include the circulatory system, digestive system, endocrine system, integumentary system, muscular system, nervous system, reproductive system, respiratory system, skeletal system and urinary/excretory system. Each system depends on others, either directly or indirectly.

The other thing we need to remember when we make our resolutions is that the goal needs to be achievable and it needs to be specific.  Saying we are going to exercise is a good resolution but the goal is too general.  Instead, we might say "My goal is to exercise twice a week for 2 months''.  Here the goal is specified with a time factor- after the two months we can review our goal.
Another point to remember about making changes is that people around you may not support the change in you.  This does not mean that you should give up on your resolution.  Being aware that others may not want to change and/or it reminds them of what they are not doing themselves can motivate them to sabotage your efforts.  Be strong and continue on your journey with the grace of God.

We may wish to make resolutions for our physical, emotional and spiritual aspects. It can be easy to think of some resolutions for our physical and emotional well being but often we forget to make a resolution for our spiritual well-being. Limbic lag still operates but without making any spiritual goals for the year, we have not acknowledged the need to change.

What physical, emotional and spiritual resolutions will you make this year?

Read Next Post in series New Year Resolutions and Goal Settings.::  Come back to read more about how to set goals appropriately for success

You may also wish to check out my podcast called Talking Music Classical for this post called New Year Resolutions and Limbic Lag.