Behavior, not thought, is the key to change

Conventional wisdom tells us that if we want to change a behavior we must first change our thinking.  However, that wisdom turns out to be incorrect, according to a new theory.

 

Behavioral Activation is a relative newcomer to the field of psychological theory. The central idea behind Behavioral Activation is this: Change the way you behave and you will change the way you think.

 

Authors Dr. Michael E. Addis and Dr.  Christopher R. Martell make the point in their Behavioral Activation workbook that we do not have control over the thousands of thoughts that tirelessly create our daily mind chatter or the feelings those thoughts produce.  Yet, we do have considerable control over our behaviors, many of which are influenced by the past.

 

“Your past is extremely important in shaping who you are now.  However, the quickest way to remove the effect of the past is to begin to act differently,” say Addis and Martell in Overcoming Depression One Step at a Time.

 

Because we do have control over our behaviors, changing them is the most effective means of generating the change we desire in our lives.  Though the workbook is devoted to the treatment of depression, I have found that it is a powerful tool for my clients suffering from a wide range of issues including relationships, addiction, anxiety, and negative habits.

 

The reason for that is simple.   It is our behaviors that impact other people and ourselves, not our thoughts.  Thoughts are hidden until they are expressed in our actions.  And our actions are behaviors.

 

But in order to change a behavior, we must first be aware of it.  One of the reasons why I believe in the power of relationships is that we are often unaware of our behaviors and the impact they have on others.  We need other people because they are like mirrors that allow us to see the effects of our behavior.

 

The importance of other people in promoting self-awareness is reflected in Addis and Martell’s three principles of behaviors.

  • Much of your behavior is so automatic that it occurs outside of your awareness.
  • You do much of what you do out of habit.
  • To change behavioral habits, you must first recognize the behavioral pattern, so you can know when and what to change.

 

For those of you who have come to this blog post from the recovery community, you have often heard in AA meetings the saying, “Fake it ‘til you make it.”

 

The idea here is that we act our way into different thinking.  And this is also true of our feelings.  Psychologists tell us that we feel our thinking.  So changing a behavior can have a profound effect not only on our thinking but also our feelings.

 

Although our past has been a crucial element in shaping who we are in the present, it doesn’t mean that we must become acutely aware of everything that happened to us since we were kids.  This is why life coaching has advantages over traditional therapy.  Life coaches typically work from the present to the future rather than from the past to the present.

 

“Change does not require that you develop complete insight into the workings of your childhood but only that you begin to learn new ways of being an adult,” say Addis and Martell.

 

One of the greatest hurdles that we need to surmount in addressing change is the incessant message our Western culture speaks to us: that we must feel motivated in order to accomplish anything, including change.

 

Addis and Martell make the observation that when we wait to feel motivated to do something we often avoid it.  And avoidance is one of the greatest contributors to stress and bouts of depression.  Motivation is not our natural starting point for accomplishing tasks.  Instead, motivation is the result of first undertaking a task, including the task of changing our lives.   Put in the effort and the motivation will follow.

 

Avoidance can take on subtle forms.  Worry is one of them.  When we worry, we distract our minds from dealing with strong feelings of sadness. “Often the more you avoid experiencing negative feelings, the longer the negative feelings remain,” according to Addis and Martell.

 

For those of you who are in recovery, you are keenly aware how our addictions numbed us out to issues in our lives that could only be addressed by change.  We became experts in avoiding anything that created discomfort.  And change so often involves the discomfort of uncertainty.  As a result, our problems piled higher and higher, and we became sicker and sicker.   Sadly, some of give up,  preferring  the certainty of misery over the misery of uncertainty.

 

For those of you inspired to change, Addis and Martell came up with fitting acronym for putting Behavioral Activation into effect:  ACTION.  And here’s how to apply it:

 

A = Assess your mood and behavior.

C = Choose alternative behaviors.

T = Try out the alternatives.

I =  Integrate these changes into your life.

O = Observe the results.

N = Now evaluate whether to keep the behavior or choose another alternative.

 

In parting, there are no guarantees that when we change our behaviors that the results will be the fulfillment of our fantasies.  We cannot control how people will respond to the changes we make.  But heartening to me is that our behavior is one of the things that we do have control over.  By asking those in our lives to help us identify the behaviors that are creating suffering for us and others, we can put into action the change that can transform our lives for the better.

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

What is life coaching?

Life coaching has become increasingly popular in recent years. More and more people are seeking out the services of life coaches to guide them through life’s challenges. But for many others, what life coaching is remains a mystery. As a life coach, I want introduce you to what life coaching is so you may feel more comfortable about reaching out to one of us for help.

Life coaching is a powerful alternative to traditional therapy or counseling. It helps clients with many of the same issues that counselors or therapists usually handle. One difference is that life coaches work with client’s current thoughts and behaviors that are creating problems for the client in the here and now whereas counselors typically examine a client’s past to explain the client’s problem in the present. In other words, life coaches work from the present to the future, whereas counselors often work from the past to the present.

Another difference is that life coaches are less concerned than a therapist about diagnosing a client’s problem and more concerned about developing skills and strategies so the client can effectively deal with the problem. Just as sports coaches work with athletes so they become better skilled at a sport, life coaches work with clients so they become better skilled at life.

Anxiety is a problem many people face. As a life coach, my approach to treating it would be to focus on what situations in the client’s current life trigger anxiety. It may be giving that presentation or attending that large holiday get together. I would ask the client to tell me the thoughts that go through his or her head as the event approaches. Anxiety is always future-based. It is always about what MIGHT happen, not what is happening. I would work with the client on creating a different relationship with those anxious thoughts and then on employing strategies so that the client’s attention is focused fully on the situation rather than on the anxiety. A counselor, on the other hand, would place more emphasis on the client’s history with anxiety.

The best life coaches also incorporate current psychological theories that empower clients to face rather than avoid issues. In my practice, I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and Behavioral Activation. These provide powerful tools so clients can respond more skillfully to the challenges life throws at us today and tomorrow and next week. If looking to the past helps a client see patterns of behaviors, I am all for that, but the client and I only glance at the past—we don’t stare at it.

In my practice, I coach clients on a wide range of issues. These include relationships, addiction, depression, anxiety, habits, grieving and loss. My practice differs from that of other coaches’ because I also offer clients guidance toward spiritual awakening and emotional development. Few coaches offer both. I help clients to not only wake up spiritually but also to grow up emotionally.

I encourage you to reach out to a life coach. Many life coaches, like myself, offer a free introductory session. Take the coach up on this offer. If you feel that it is the approach you want to take, then book another session. If not, at least you have a better idea of what you’re looking for and you have satisfied your curiosity about life coaching.

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

Release yourself from anxiety

Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” So it is true with me and probably with you as well. When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.

Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong. It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms. We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.

If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times. We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds. Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat, and before we can stop it we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.

If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking. And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel. Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.

In my spiritual life coaching practice, I work with clients with anxiety and depression issues. One of my clients, who suffered from anxiety for decades, found almost immediate relief from this emotional hijacking in my use of Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT).

In their book based on ACT, Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong, Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene apply the core practices of ACT to anxiety. They say, “The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain.”

Pain is an inevitable part of life. Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it. And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.

This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment. We were not only predator but also prey. What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad. So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.

ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety. One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it. When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance. Same with our anxious thoughts. When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.

How do we do that? By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind. Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders. Its domain is the past and the future. The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment. If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.

Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:

1. Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.

2. Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought. Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.

3. Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now. Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.

The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind. Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.

When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thought, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods. With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.

May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.

I would love to hear your comments or to have you share your anxiety success stories.

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

Unhooking from Your Negative Thoughts

One of the biggest issues in life is dealing with thoughts that really push us around.  All of us have these. The most common is the thought that says, “I’m not good enough.”  There are variations on the theme like “I’m defective,” “I’m not smart enough,” “I’m not worthy.”

 

These are all part of a story we have been telling ourselves for years.  For those of us new to recovery, these thoughts can really get crankin’.  (Stay with me to discover techniques that will cut the connection with these tormenting thoughts.)

 

The problem is not that we have negative thoughts; it’s getting hooked by them.  When we allow this to happen, we are immediately hijacked from what we are doing in the present moment.  One minute we’re talking with a loved one and the next we are miles away reliving a negative experience from our past.  All courtesy of these hijacking thoughts.

 

I know all too well how much anxiety and pain these thoughts cause.  So I understand the importance of getting out from under their spell.  So what do we do about them?

 

Some self-helpers will try to smother them with affirmations.  Others will argue with them or try to disprove them. Still others will roll up their sleeves and get in the trenches to fight them.  Research shows that these techniques produce a rebound effect that only  intensifies these thoughts later.  Then we find ourselves, one again, in the emotional dumpster.

 

At some point, we will say, “They’re beating the hell out of me.”  And in that moment, we have struck upon truth!

 

That truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who we are.  The key word here is SEPARATE.  We are not our thoughts.  Once that ray of light has entered our minds, we are ready for radical approach that allows us to be free from these tormentors and live a richer, fuller, more meaningful life.

 

Drumroll…This approach is called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).  And it has helped me as well as my clients tremendously.  Another tidbit of good news is you can do this with or without a therapist or coach.

 

The biggest concept that ACT deals with is fusion.  That’s what I have been talking about in this post.  It’s when we get hooked by a negative thought. In ACT language, this is called fusion.

 

All of us get pulled around by our mouths from time to time with thoughts that hook us.  What I want to teach you is how to get unhooked—or defused.  The way that we do this is to change our relationship to our thoughts so we’re not controlled by them.

 

Try this simple exercise to see what I mean.  It’s courtesy of Russ Harris, a leading practitioner of ACT.  It’s called Thoughts as Hands:

  1. Imagine that out in front of you are all the people you love, all the things you cherish, all your challenges, and all the tasks that you have to do.
  2. Your hands are your thoughts and feelings
  3. Bring your hands up until they cover your eyes and mask your vision. Keep your eyes open.
  4. Look around and notice the things that you’re missing out on because your hands are over your eyes.
  5. Notice how difficult it is to focus on, connect with, and engage with these things in front of you.
  6. Notice how difficult it is to take action—to do the things that make your life worthwhile.
  7. Now, lower your hands, and put them by your sides. See how much easier it is to focus, to connect, to act.
  8. Realize that our thoughts and feelings—our hands—still exist. They have useful information to tell you now that they’re just resting beside you rather than blocking you from your life in the present moment.

 

Through this exercise, you have created a new relationship with your thoughts: it is the  subject/object relationship in which you are the subject and your thought is the object.  As subject, you have become the observer self because you are watching your thoughts as though they are characters interacting on a stage.  It’s important to note that we are not avoiding our thoughts or trying to get rid of them—we are distancing ourselves from them so they don’t prevent us from engaging with what we truly value in our lives.

 

Harris recommends that you follow the Thoughts as Hands exercise up with techniques that help you to defuse from your thoughts. To begin, think of a thought that has recently hooked you and name it.  Then say, “I am having the thought that…” and state the name of the thought, such as, “I’m not worthy.” Follow that up with, “I notice I am having the thought that…”

 

Just saying these two sentences creates a little separation from the thought.  You’re now experiencing the beginning of the defusion process.  To increase the defusion, bring a little humor into play. Below are some techniques Harris suggests for any thought that has hooked you. Again, start with the two sentences from above to create some initial defusion and then do one or more of these exercises Harris suggests:

 

  1. Say the thought in a funny voice over and over again.
  2. Say it with a foreign accent.
  3. Sing the thought to the tune of one of your favorite songs.
  4. Project the thought onto a mental screen and imagine a karaoke ball bouncing along the words.
  5. Project the thought onto a mental screen and put it in some crazy fonts.

 

One of the best techniques for defusion it to imagine yourself sitting above a river and placing the negative thought on a leaf.  Just watch it move along the river.  Don’t talk to it.  Just silently let it float by.  Or put the thought on a cloud and watch it drift away.

It’s my hope that you experience a new relationship with your thoughts.  It may be that as you defuse from a thought that you can now also see the positive in a former negative memory that keeps generating the thought.  As you practice defusion, you will find that you become more and more present to your life. And you’ll find that you are increasingly empowered by what’s important in your life rather than being disempowered by your dark thoughts and feelings.

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach