The more you know

What stimulates you to make changes in life

Quitting smoking, changing nutrition, making decisions … Often the best good intentions fail against the inertia of habits. But sometimes “critical” events can prove to be an unexpected opportunity to implement changes that were previously unthinkable. Let’s see why.

The birth of a child, the death of a loved one, the loss of a job, a falling in love … Some phases of life represent moments of “crisis”, of passage, which require – for better or for worse – to modify important elements of the own identity. These opportunities, if accepted as evolutionary “challenges”, can represent as many opportunities to finally make “healthy” changes in one’s lifestyle (quitting smoking, change nutrition, manage work time, etc.) that until then seemed impossible or destined to be procrastinated indefinitely.

Turning points …

People mostly know what they would like to change in their lives and what choices would go in the direction of their better well-being: you can see it from the inevitable lists of good intentions that are drawn up at the beginning of each year, renewed quickly after the summer is too often largely unanswered. However, several studies have examined when and how people manage, often in a short time, to change these habits that have lasted for long periods. Quitting smoking or changing your diet are among the best studied behaviors so far. Generally in the course of adult life we ​​tend to keep our food style rather stable over time and we are generally rather reluctant to change it, since it is the result of all those thoughts, experiences and behavioral strategies that we have developed as a result of past experiences. But in the course of life, turning points can occur that lead us to change it in a more or less substantial way. According to a review conducted by Devine in 2005, this would often coincide with moments of transition from one phase to another of the life cycle (e.g. marriage, becoming parents, leaving the home of children, separation or divorce, moving, changing of work or socio-economic status).

Redefine your identity

In the cases mentioned above, however, some people react by changing their food style, others do not. According to Devine, the former also associate a change in identity with an existential transition, reconfiguring one’s approach to food. This intent can arise for example in the adoption of a vegetarian diet or in the success of a regimen for the prevention of heart disease. Food and nutrition, on the other hand, often represent a means of defining one’s identity and communicating it to others. In conclusion, from the aforementioned review it seems that, in order for an existential transition to be reflected in a change in nutrition, it is necessary that it entails a change in identity that the person would face by intervening on the image he has of himself. The conclusions reached by Devine’s review are congruent with those of Herman and Polivy (1984): an emotionally stressful event – which cracks the previous existential balance – affects food behavior especially when it is experienced as a threat to one’s identity. In other words, those critical events that undermine self-esteem and self-image would seem more inclined to affect eating behavior.

To suffer the impact of events or reinvent yourself?

Another important contribution is made by the studies of Jane Ogden and colleagues. They highlight the limitations of those researches that focused only on the strategic and behavioral dimensions for decreasing and maintaining body weight. Socio-cognitive theories, such as the Transteoric Model of Change (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1983), describe food change as a process that takes place through a series of phases and steps along which the motivations and strategies used are modified. The results, according to these theories, come only in the long run. Other studies conducted on ex-smokers would instead highlight several “success stories” in which a substantial and lasting change in behavior occurred even in a short time without being preceded by a long and procedural planning. These are the cases in which, for example, an acute health problem related to smoking would have played a critical role, constituting in itself a turning point in determining a sudden and long-lasting interruption of the wrong habit. In these cases, people would be able to intervene substantially on certain lifestyles (diet, smoking, physical activity) by adopting healthier behaviors as self-regulation tools to restore a new balance, renew themselves and manage the change in the face to a crisis.

The example of “success stories

The people protagonists of the “success stories” studied by Ogden and colleagues therefore not only changed their habits, but managed to maintain constancy in the long run. According to the researchers this would be supported by three factors:> the loss of the function that the previous behavior (eating or smoking) performed in their life;> the establishment of new life circumstances that prevent / limit the possibility of carrying on old habits ;> finally perceive that you have control over change. These three elements help to persevere in the long term and thus help to support an identity renewal that leads to a new balance. This mechanism, the authors conclude, highlights that:> on the one hand the impact of existential crises and the way in which they are lived can in itself trigger a change without the need for conscious planning, as socio-cognitive theories suggest ;> on the other, food change can be interpreted as an instrument of self-regulation through which the person builds a new image of himself and his life.

Adaptation to stress and health

However, not all people experiencing identity crises react by adopting new, healthier lifestyles. Why? A subsequent quantitative survey of Ogden and colleagues examined the role of life events in weight loss and gain. It emerged that existential crises (relationship problems, pregnancy, disease, death of a loved one) affected weight not so much depending on the type of event, but how it was perceived by the subject:> if positive, controllable and foreseeable it was associated with weight loss and increased exercise;> if unexpected and out of control, weight gain. In other words: the people who experience existential crises as positive “challenges” are also the ones most motivated to change their lifestyles in a healthy way to renew their image, better adapting to change and integrating the critical event into their identity. personnel. These conclusions seem in agreement with what was highlighted by a 2010 study by Sutin and colleagues: stressful life events, if experienced as negative turning points that create a discontinuity of the person’s existential experience, are more easily associated with a worsening of physical health conditions and an increase in perceived psychological stress. On the contrary, this does not happen if stressful events are perceived as experiences from which lessons have been learned. Existential crises represent breaking points that need to be integrated into the rest of the individual experience, also depending on the time spent and the age of the person. The way people manage to do this step affects their degree of physical and psychological health.

Crisis also means renewal

In summary, a stressful life event or an existential crisis can be experienced and faced according to two different approaches that we can represent as extremes of a continuum:> a cumulative type (similar to the Piagetian concept of assimilation) in which even the most dramatic events are gradually “archived” and “set aside” without being processed, remaining a sort of “blind area” in personal experience that brings no new knowledge of oneself and others; > the other of a transformative type (similar to the Piagetian concept of accommodation) which sees these events as an opportunity for change. If the premises on the basis of which we relate to experience are questioned and partially modified by what happened, the event anchors and integrates with the rest of the narrative plot of personal existence. The change in eating habits witnessed by the “success stories” reported by the research cited above seems associated with a transformative approach to existential crises and a desire to renew one’s personal identity and self-image. “The crisis is the greatest blessing for people and nations, because the crisis brings progress. Creativity arises from anguish as the day arises from the dark night. It is in the crisis that inventiveness, discoveries and great strategies arise Those who overcome the crisis overcome themselves without being overcome. Those who attribute their failures and difficulties to the crisis, violate their own talent and value problems rather than solutions. The real crisis is the crisis of incompetence. of people and nations is laziness in seeking solutions and ways out. Without crisis there are no challenges, without challenges life is a routine, a slow agony. Without crisis there is no merit. It is in the crisis that the best emerges everyone, because without a crisis all the winds are only light breezes. Talking about a crisis means increasing it, and keeping silent in the crisis is enhancing conformism. Instead, let’s work hard. Let’s end it once and for all with the only dangerous crisis. dare, which is the tragedy of not wanting to fight to overcome it “(A. Einstein, 1955).

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