From Thought to Action: Changing Habits

From Thought to Action: Changing Habits

In my psychotherapy and change work, I am still surprised at how people who are in incredible pain from things like anxiety, depression, a dysfunctional relationship and addictions, still find it hard to change. So, imagine how difficult is it for people who have even less motivation to change and who continue to fail their annual New Year’s resolution. For example, I often treat people who are suffering from simple anxiety and provide them with relaxation exercise so that they can learn to relax. It is impossible to be relaxed and anxious at the same time, so it is a really useful life skill. Once you can relax there are all sorts of techniques that can be learned to reduce anxiety such as anchoring, for example. However, some people just don’t engage with it or with other strategies designed to reduce their anxiety. There are similar responses when it comes to helping people with depression. Medical doctors tell me it is the same with medication compliance and health advice that would improve the health of their patients. It’s not that people are lazy or indifferent, it might be that there are significant barriers to change that operate unconsciously to sabotage our efforts.

I’ve come to think a habit, even extremely a dysfunctional one, is like that old overcoat you use. It has holes in it, is a bit dirty and basically doesn’t work as a coat or as a fashion item but it is familiar, well known, even comfortable somehow despite the fact it doesn’t quite do what it should. Somehow, it is better to stick with what one knows, even if it is painful or doesn’t work than to make the effort and leap into the unknown. As a patient of mine said recently, it takes a lot of courage to change, to take the risk.

One of the reasons it is hard to change is found in neuroscience. Habits are hard wired into the brain and in order to change them and learn new ones, it is necessary to rewire new pathways. So, it is no easy task to change. We also like certainty and our Lizard brain, or out primitive emotional brain, responds with fear when we are confronted with uncertainty. Some neuroscientific research suggests that our brain has the same response to change as it does to pain. No wonder we avoid it.

So, what are some things that can help improve our chance of changing a habit in the face of some significant obstacles, even when we are suffering?

  • It appears that we need to believe that the change is really worthwhile. So, we need to know that the effort of exercising will indeed help treat depression, anxiety and stress, for example. This is called response efficacy. If we don’t believe that the change is worthwhile, then effort will be low.
  • This is even more difficult when it comes to addictions. We need to believe that losing weight, stopping smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, staying off drugs, or not working all hours will be good for us. But what gets in the way is the fact that addictions release dopamine and causes us to feel pleasure when we engage with our addiction. The belief that the change will be good for us has to compensate for the pleasure we are missing.
  • We also have to believe that we can in fact achieve the change and feel a sense of reward when we engage in the new habit. This is called self-efficacy and is a major predictor of whether or not a person will change. You can judge self-efficacy by asking the person on a scale of 1 to 100, the extent to which they believe they can achieve the change. A score of 80 or more is predictive of the change being accomplished. If it is low, then more therapy is needed.
  • Small steps. Make change manageable by planning small increments of change and reward yourself when each step is achieved.
  • One day at a time. This Alcoholics Anonymous maxim seems to work. Looking too far ahead makes the change look insurmountable. So, small achievable goals are the go.
  • Make sure you understand why you need to change and remind yourself of the benefits of the change.
  • Tell a friend. Telling someone about the change seems to increase commitment. It is also valuable to have a support person to motivate you when you are struggling and to listen, should you falter.
  • Don’t berate yourself if you lapse. Rather, commit to change again-straight away and recognise the lapse for what it is-that old habits die hard and this was just falling into the old habit.
  • Remove triggers. Some habits have triggers, such as having a cigarette with coffee or a wine with dinner. Detach them by committing to not having that wine with dinner, don’t order that cake when having a coffee at your favourite coffee shop.
  • Make new routines. Exercise at the same time each day, go to bed at the same time each night and set the alarm for the same time in the morning. Set your relaxation, meditation or mindfulness training session each day. Commit to the change by scheduling it in your diary.
  • See and identify yourself to others as a non-drinker, non-smoker, non-cake or sugar eater. ‘Thanks, but I don’t drink.’

It takes courage to change.

Watch out for our new short book on how to change habits coming out in a month or so.

Have you seen our recent book? It’s called ‘Are you a boiling frog?’ You can find it at: