Live a New Year Free of Negative Habits

Habits can be good or bad. It’s the negative ones that cause us problems. These are self-sabotaging behaviors. And whether we are aware of them or not, all of us have a negative habit or two.

Negative habits are anything we continue to do despite the negative consequences they create. Maybe the habit is overspending, procrastination, complaining, gossiping, talking excessively, or social media.

Or maybe it’s a more dangerous habit like smoking, drug use, gambling, or excessive eating or drinking. Regardless of where you are on the continuum, negative habits typically get worse over time and cause us suffering.

Negative habits form when we do something that brings us temporary comfort from things that create discomfort for us. They provide short-term gain but cause us long-term pain. So how do any of us get over our negative habits?

First, we must be aware of them. Second, we must want to be rid of them. And third, we must learn how negative habits begin because that is the key to their end.

The first step takes some courage. This is the awareness step. Even non-life threatening habits like gossiping, complaining, and criticizing can damage or even end important relationships. People who we trust can really help us become aware of our negative habits. We just need to summon the courage to ask their help. We all have blindspots.

For those whose negative habits are more destructive and self-sabotaging, like drinking and drugging, awareness of the habit comes from the extreme suffering they cause. But in the early stages, a person may not be fully aware of the issue. Again, friends and family can help us see it.

So awareness brings us to the second step: the readiness step. It requires honesty. Do we really want to stop indulging this habit? I have the clients I work with answer a simple question: Does the habit come between you and the life you want for yourself? Ask yourself this question. If the answer is yes, then you are ready to move to step three: learning about habits.

All habits are powered by thought. And that’s the key. To end a negative habit, we must change our relationship with the thoughts that created the habit. To do this requires a little more understanding of how negative habits begin.

Habits are a way of alleviating discomfort. We are stressed after a hard day at work, and we have a drink to relax. The lower brain—the amygdala—notices that we feel better because of the drink. It creates a neural link to that pleasant feeling. Each time we take that drink after work, the neural connection strengthens. That neural connection creates the habit. This is true of other habits like procrastination in which we do something that brings us pleasure to avoid what brings us discomfort.

The amygdala is not only responsible for our survival, but it also regulates routine. It becomes like an alarm clock that rings in the form of an urge or craving. And this is where the habit becomes tragic. Not only do we feel the stress of our daily lives, but now we feel the stress of the craving. What once brought us comfort now compounds our discomfort. It’s like a pet dog that now bites us.

Because the amygdala is responsible for our survival, satisfying the craving feels like a matter of life or death. It tells us that we have to have that drink or that smoke or that Vicodin or that pie. The craving seems bigger than us. And the only way to get rid of the tension is to give in to it. That’s the message the amygdala sends us.

This message, however, is a thought. And thoughts cannot harm us or force us to do anything. As we all know, the thousands of thoughts we have in a day are like vapors that come and go. It’s the ones we pay attention to that we give power to.

So it all comes down to changing your relationship with the thoughts that are giving you trouble—the ones that are creating your urges. The truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who you really are. The key word here is SEPARATE. You are not your thoughts. You generate your thoughts, but they are not you just as I am not the words I am now writing.

Realizing this is profound. It changes your entire relationship to your thoughts. You are the subject and the thoughts creating the urge are the object. Now these thoughts become like characters on a stage and you are watching them from a seat separate from them.

When you are aware of this relationship, you can benefit greatly, as my clients have, from the insights Dr. Amy Johnson provides in The Little Book of Big Change.
These are:

• All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

• When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

• When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

• The higher brain, located in the pre-frontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lower brain’s urges or not.

• We don’t make the lower brain (the amygdala) the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job. In that way, it is like an alarm clock. The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

• We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lower brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

• Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

• When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

Some thoughts are more difficult to defuse from than others. In my life coaching practice, I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with clients because it provides powerful tools for overcoming negative habits. You can apply these ACT techniques on your own with an ACT workbook to guide you. One I would recommend is The Wisdom to Know the Difference. If your habit is particularly dangerous, then a support group like Alcoholic Anonymous is highly recommended.

Another alternative is seeking out my help. We could work one-on-one either in person or on Skype on a negative habit that is keeping you from living a richer, fuller, more meaningful life. Go to my website at rjhandley.com. To find out more about me or to read some of my articles published in The Fix, the AA Grapevine, or Addiction Unscripted, just Google my name.

Here’s to living free of negative habits in the New Year!!

RJ Handley
Life 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 would like to work with me one-on-one about your anxiety or depression, go to rjhandley.com.

My Best,
RJ Handley, Spiritual Life 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.

 

Have fun!

RJ Handley

Spiritual Life Coach

Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and into Your Life

Chronic pain is very discouraging.  Ten months ago I had a spinal fusion because of a back injury I suffered.  I had been in pain for two years prior to it. And now, as I’m supposed to feel the relief of full recovery, I still have back pain and nerve pain in my feet.

 

Like some of you, chronic pain has robbed me of my zest for life.  And it has left me feeling very discouraged—even hopeless.  But at 57-years-old, I am not willing to spend the next 20 years marooned by medications, living in an opioid stupor.

 

It’s time to get out of the preoccupation with pain and to get into my life.

 

Living an inspired life means making inspiring choices.  One of the most inspiring of those choices was to embrace the power of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

 

At the core of ACT pain therapy is an essential truth:  elimination of chronic pain is not possible for some of us.  But it doesn’t have to sideline us.  In their Internet workbook called Life with Chronic Pain: An Acceptance-based Approach, Kevin E. Vowles, Ph.D.  and  John T. Sorrell, Ph.D.,  apply the core processes of ACT to pain.

 

They acknowledge that pain, thoughts and mood, and basic functioning interact in a way that contributes to increasing problems and decreasing quality of life.  As so many of us who suffer have come to realize, treatments often fail to provide us with long-term decreases in pain.

 

Trying to change our thoughts and moods also becomes problematic.   “If you wake up in a sad mood, does telling yourself, ‘Don’t be sad anymore.’ lead to any change in your mood?” ask Vowles and Sorrell, knowing, too, that trying not to think about your pain only increases its hold over you.

 

Functioning, though, may be the area where your efforts will have the most impact, according to Vowles and Sorrell.   It’s about deciding what is vitally important to you and pursing it despite pain.  I have found that if I remain on the sidelines trying to avoid anything that may incite my pain, that my pain still exists.  On the other hand, when I am actively engaged in my life, I often forget about my pain.  Consider this: when you are laughing with loved ones, what happens to your pain?  Exactly!  It disappears.  Remember, we give power to whatever we give attention to.

 

Breaking ACT Down

 

The “A” in ACT is about acceptance.  It’s about becoming comfortable with discomfort. “It is not the same as defeat, helplessness, quitting, or resigning to a life of unhappiness, struggle, or misery,” Vowles and Sorrell say.   Acceptance of chronic pain, then, is living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.

 

The “C” in ACT is about commitment.   By combining acceptance with commitment, you begin  living a life driven by the things you value despite a physical issue that contributes to pain and suffering.  “Values are what you want your life to stand for,” according to Vowles and Sorrel. “Values are what you want to be remembered for by loved ones and close friends after you have passed.”

 

ACT is about accepting the fact that we all face difficult challenges that we cannot control, alter, or eliminate.  It’s not about “throwing in the towel.”  We, instead, commit to a life in which we are engaged in the present moment with things we value in the here and now.  We live a life, not in the absence of pain, but knowing that there is something more important than pain.

 

I leave you with words that you can say that will help you keep your mind centered on acceptance and commitment.  It is called the Serenity Prayer:  Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.