Neurobiology Of Change

The first few paragraphs of this blog were adapted from an article on Psychology Today about why we resist change… and how specifically this relates to our habitual relationship with alcohol.

The steps to making meaningful life changes are implicated by areas of the brain that control our habits and conscious decision-making abilities. Our basal ganglia in the ancestral or primitive brain are responsible for “wiring” habits. This cluster of nerve cell bodies is involved in functions such as automatic or routine behaviors (e.g., habits) that we are familiar with or that make us feel good. Such behaviors might include nail biting, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol habitually or following the same routine every day without making changes to it.

Social and Personality Researcher Dr Erin Baker describes this process further:  In addition to the basal ganglia, each time a behavior feels good, there is a bit of a dopamine rush. That dopamine rush motivates future behaviors, and as the behavior is repeated, basically dopamine facilitates neurons "connecting" that reinforce the habit. Basically the whole mantra of " neurons that fire together, wire together".

Habits like exercise form when we perform a certain behavior in a specific environment or context. When we do something like put a seatbelt on (an action) when we get into a car (a contextual cue), we develop automaticity, or an automatic behavior in response to the contextual cue. In the “Psychology of Habit,” Wendy Wood and Dennis Rünger from the department of psychology at UCLA wrote that while some of this automatic cuing may be unintentional, deliberately cuing ourselves could help us to engage in particular habits.

Just as coming home after a stressful day at work might have become a “cue” for habitual response such as pouring a glass of wine, we can create new habitual responses. It will take a bit more work initially, because we are activating a different part of the brain and have to engage in conscious action planning for awhile, until this new response or activity becomes a new habit.

Any type of change like incorporating a physical activity into our routine after a period of being sedentary can go against the neural pathways that have become automatic to us. That is why we tend to fall back on our default or automatic behaviors when we try to implement changes like a new diet or physical activity after a period of inactivity.

Although we can consciously control the decision to work out, this is the responsibility of a separate region of the brain known as the neocortex, which controls conscious decision-making in the brain. Our conscious actions require much more effort. If we want to overcome a lack of motivation and other obstacles that are getting in the way of our success, frequent exercise and conscious action planning are involved in making an exercise habit stick, according to Lena Fleig and colleagues(2013).

This is where accountability becomes critical for your behaviour change relate to alcohol. As I frequently say to my clients, “if nothing changes, nothing changes…” You CAN change your relationship to alcohol the same way you change another habitual pattern (as long as there is no physical dependence).

Creating a reward system can also help motivate change in the beginning. Rewards will trigger dopamine, which feels good. Eventually, following through on the new behaviour starts to feel so good that the reward is no longer as necessary. Charles Duhigg describes this in his book, "The Power of Habit." The cue - behavior - reward system, and so it's equally important to reward yourself for creating a new behavior as it is to have a cue. Interestingly, at some point the brain wires so that the behavior itself actually becomes rewarding and the reward is no longer needed.

In her interview for the Redefining Sobriety Summit, Dr Delafield Heinrici, a Board Certified Addictions Physician, talks about the importance of creating change in other aspects of your life (which can help with the neuro-”cueing”) and having other supports in place to help with accountability and motivation for change.

Remember, change is hard… we are literally hard-wired to resist it.

This is why accountability systems are so important, whether they be “cues” like programming reminders in your phone or scheduling alternative activities during times you are more likely to habitually crave a drink, or reaching out to a friend at the same time each day (before you start to crave a drink or fall back into an unconscious habitual response). This is also why having unfailing and non-judgemental support, with a combination of evidence-based strategies (based on information like you’ve just read) and practical, lived experience - is essential. I offer all of this and more in my consultations, and the first one is always free. I look forward to connecting!

3 things you can do when you're feeling sad


I understand now that I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, “For the same reason I laugh so often, because I’m paying attention.” - Glennon Doyle

If you’re friends with me on Facebook, you’ll know that this past week I was feeling really sad. The news of both Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain committing suicide and leaving behind young daughters - hit me hard.

Seeing countless follow up posts about friends and acquaintances who were also struggling with mental health, or who had lost someone, really brought home how much we are struggling collectively - in a culture that is making us sick and isolated… and is literally killing some of us. There are some weeks, like last week, where we come face to face with that reality, and I don’t know about you caitlin, I’m left reeling and wondering “Am I doing enough? How can we change this?”


A week ago today, on Friday afternoon, in a freak accident, a young construction worker was electrocuted and died on the roof directly in front of my house here in Mexico.

In an instant, so many lives were changed forever.

My friend who heard the cries and saw it go down from her balcony, and called for help.

My other two friends who rushed down from their third-floor apartment ran across the street and up three floors where one performed CPR and the other held the young man's head and prayed and talked to him as his spirit left his body.

The young man's older brother, who was the head of the construction crew and watched his younger brother die.

The neighbour's/owners of the construction site, one of whom was also electrocuted and rushed to the hospital where he remains under observation.

The staff of our hotel, who have been friends with the family for years, one of whom was hanging out on the rooftop during a break, just minutes before the accident.

And of course, the rest young man's family... including wife and 9-month-old baby, and his parents who had to say goodbye to their child.

The grief and shock around were palpable over the weekend. The building site directly across from my patio remains eerily silent and it is impossible not to think about what happened every time I look out my window, as I did numerous times a day.


And then on Saturday, I had a consultation call with a guy I had known from elementary and middle school. My initial consultations are usually 45 mins to an hour, and we talked for twice as long.

While a lot of our conversation centred around his experiences, we also talked about mine.

We talked about how we had learned to survive trauma and the culture of extreme and violent toxic masculinity that we grew up with... He became a hockey player, used alcohol to numb and aggression as an outlet for his pain. Though he was a few years younger than the perpetrators of the abuse I experienced, he literally became "that guy" I had to protect myself from.

I held space for him to cry and I could feel him sobbing from across an entire continent.

The conversation brought up a lot for me, it literally so close to home.

I felt deeply sad after. I sat in my office and cried.

I cried tears for the children in both of us, longing to be held and comforted and loved unconditionally.

I wept for the teenagers in both of us, who grasped at all we knew to survive and both resorted to defiantly fighting/fucking our way out... and the resulting, protective shell so thick it is taking years to chip away.

For us as adults and parents, trying so hard to heal and learn to love ourselves so that we can show our kids how to be whole.


The layers of sadness felt like a cloud around and inside of me... clouding my ability to think clearly (I kept forgetting things) or move quickly.

I went to see Ocean's 8 on Saturday and was entertained for a couple of hours and yet as soon as I got home, the cloud returned.

I went out dancing for a couple of hours that night and had my moments of joy, but then the sadness would well up in my eyes and my friend/dance partner kept saying "animoCata" ... I felt the old familiar urge to numb/escape creep back. I took myself home and cried instead.


I'm paying attention.

I'm refusing to turn away.

I'm also releasing the sense that there is something "wrong" with me when I can't "get over it" or when I feel so deeply

I've felt distracted and can't really concentrate

And I know that this is okay

It's okay for me to be with sadness

It's okay if it takes time

I'd rather be "too sensitive" than tuned out

Learning to show up as I am and truly BE has been one of the hardest and also most beautiful gifts of my life.


What can you do if you’re feeling sad?

Be honest:

One of the biggest gifts you can give yourself is to be honest about what’s going on. I used to put on a smiley face to try to convince everyone including myself that “EVERYTHING IS FINE” - when of course, it wasn’t.

It still feels unfamiliar to me to answer the question “how are you?” honestly.

Here’s an example of a conversation with a friend on Monday (over text message):

Friend: “How are you?”

Me: “I’m actually really sad right now.”

Friend: 'How come?”

Me: “I’m not sure. Everything. It feels like a lot right now.”

Friend: “What can I do to help?”

Me: “I don’t know… I think I just need to be sad. Keep checking in… give me a hug later?”

Then I posted on Facebook about feeling sad. It was really hard for me to do this, as is sharing this blog. After putting on a mask for so many years, it’s still hard to take it off sometimes, even with practice.

Give yourself time:

I’ve come to realize more and more that the only way out is through. As you saw from my attempts to distract myself from my sadness on Saturday, it didn’t really work. Going to the movie and then out dancing was a temporary escape, however, what I really needed was to give myself the time to experience the range of emotions … and to have a fully embodied experience of my grief and sadness. This took a few days, days where I tried to slow right down and take the non-essentials off of my “to-do” list. If this isn’t possible, for example, you are a caretaker and have to go to your 9-5 job and just aren’t able to turn inward, it’s okay… Be patient and gentle with yourself and know that it might take a little bit more time to work through you.


It can be really hard to reach out for support when you are feeling sad, and even more so when you are depressed. That’s why I advocate setting up a support system when things “aren’t so bad.”

I have a world-class team of support: an incredibly skilled holistic therapist whom I see every two weeks (currently repeating in my calendar “forever” lol), two coaches, my mastermind sisters, several colleagues who truly understand the unique challenges of being an entrepreneur, friends with whom I can be raw and real, family...

If you've been feeling sad, lonely, isolated, overwhelmed, paralyzed, wanting to tune out or numb... Let's talk. I know it can be hard to reach out but I promise you will feel better when you do. Together, we are stronger. Sometimes, speaking with someone can help you see options that aren't obvious when you're "deep in it." I would love to connect. Click here to set up a time. 



When restricting yourself isn’t working… try adding in!

I was talking to a client this week who was beating herself up after the cleanse we had created for her “fell apart.” As she described what had happened over the past couple of weeks since our last 1-1 call, she kept using words like “I cheated” and “I was bad.”

 As we dug deeper, she described a pattern in her behaviour. She would set unrealistically high expectations for herself, and then somehow find a way to #@!* it up, then beat herself up more, and as a punishment, set an even stricter program for herself, which she would inevitably F-up again.

Sound familiar?

I meet and work with a lot of women who are really hard on themselves. I myself have certainly gone to extremes of self-flagilation as well. It wasn’t until I got so tired of being hard on myself (and basically crashing and burning) and started filling my life with pleasure and positivity that I actually started seeing the results I wanted.

What’s even better is that this is one of the foundational approaches we learn at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition, where I studied to become a coach. (If you’d like to know more about IIN, let me know!)

 Instead of focusing on everything she did “wrong,” I challenged my client to celebrate her successes. What were the elements of the cleanse that she had stuck to? What were the changes that she enjoyed?

Not surprisingly there were many: she loved her daily green smoothies, was adding more greens and salads to every meal, trying new recipes, getting great sleep and waking up earlier with more energy, and instead of drinking wine daily in the evenings, was limiting her intake to special evenings with friends. Oh and in 2 weeks had lost 5 pounds, despite a back injury that had kept her on the sofa for half the time. That’s a lot to celebrate!!

Next we talked about how to “flip the script” and reverse the cycle of restrictive diets and negative self talk. Instead of designing a program that revolves around “limiting, eliminating, and abstaining” what if we simply focused on “adding in” more good-for-us stuff? MORE green smoothies in the morning, more veggies, more yummy alternatives to red wine in the evenings, more self care, more baths in the evening, more enjoyable moderate exercise, more pleasure, and more sleep.

Sounds a lot better, doesn’t it?

The more good, pleasurable, positive, healthy, fun (insert your desired adjective here) we can ADD IN to our lives, the less we feel as though we are depriving or restricting ourselves, and the less likely we are to trigger those negative cycles.

So tell me, what are you going to add in this week? I would love to hear in the comments section.

And as always, if you know someone who would benefit from reading this, please share with them!