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.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, spiritual life coach

Understanding Addiction as a Habit, Not a Disease

There are many forms of addiction.  Though drugs and alcohol are the Big Two, there are people who suffer as well from addictions that society considers more benign.  They’re called shopaholics, workaholics, rageaholics.  Others would say that the ultimate addiction is to our own negative thinking.

 

Whatever the addiction, we all know that they can wreak havoc in our own lives and those of our family and friends.  The concepts behind Rational Recovery, a relative newcomer to the addiction scene, combined with those of Alcoholics Anonymous can be a powerful one-two punch for overcoming addiction.

 

As a recovering addict myself, I have been puzzled why it is that I became addicted while those around me appear free from them.  In AA, I learned that my addiction is a disease.  Rational Recovery, on the other hand, says that my addiction is a function of my brain’s wiring.  It is, therefore, a habit, not a disease.

 

Although I often feel compelled to take a side in this debate, I believe that it is vitally important for me to remain open and willing to listen to both sides.  This is because I have a passion and commitment to helping others overcome their addictions as I have been helped to overcome my own.  I will use whatever ethical means to bring relief to the still suffering.  If this means that I embrace an approach different from the one that saved me from my addiction, then I will suggest it to my clients or sponsees who I am committed to helping.

 

As I have learned from my Buddhist brothers and sisters, often the best solution to a problem is not choosing one side over another but choosing the door between them—the middle way.

 

I am convinced that if I hadn’t walked through the doors of AA a decade ago, I would be dead today.  But, at the time, that was the only solution I knew.  And I know through my work with addicts, that AA has saved their lives, too.  Yet, there is merit in considering what Rational Recovery has to offer.  After all, there may be great power and value in learning from both so that I will be better able to extend a hand and help lift addicts from the trenches of their addiction.

 

Just recently I read The Little Book of Big Change, by Dr. Amy Johnson.  In it, Johnson explains the concepts behind Rational Recovery and provides her wisdom on the topic of habits in a very easy and entertaining way.  Rather than trying to condense its 200 pages into this blog, I will present the concepts that I believe are the most helpful to addicts.

 

  • Addictions are habits.

 

  • You weren’t born with your habit. Your habit isn’t natural to you; it is artificial, innocently created by you as a function of the way you relate to and act on your thoughts.

 

  • We engage in what becomes habit to help us avoid pain and make us feel better. Habits provide distractions from addressing issues within ourselves that we don’t like.

 

  • Urges (cravings) are thoughts. Habits/addictions are created because you act on your urges.

 

  • The difference between a person for whom a particular thought or behavior is a habit and the person for whom it is not is that the person with the habit entertains, takes seriously, and ultimately acts on some thoughts that others do not.

 

  • Each time we obey an urge, we strengthen the brain (neural) circuitry that supports the habit.

 

  • Neurologically, your urges live in your lower brain—the amygdala—also called the lizard brain because it is the oldest part of the brain.

 

  • The first few times you experienced an urge and obeyed it, you strengthened the connections in your brain between your habit and positive feelings. Your lower brain saw that when it produced an urge, you acted on it and felt good, which told your brain, “This works”…So the urges continue. Each time you gave in to them, they became stronger.

 

  • The amygdala’s chief concern is our survival. That’s why urges seem to have the power of life or death over us.

 

  • When you mistakenly view urges as dangerous, personal, unbearable, or somehow permanent, you naturally give in to them.

 

  • Urges are actually only a temporary experience made of nothing but conditioned thought.

 

  • 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 prefrontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lizard brain’s urges or not.

 

  • We don’t make the lizard brain 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 lizard 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.

 

After reading about Rational Recovery, I have come to believe in its truth.  And I find that its concepts are actually invaluable to the treatment of addiction  because Rational Recovery explains the neurological roots of addiction.

For those of us who are addicts, we know how difficult it is to overcome addiction.  For me, I needed the strength and wisdom of my Higher Power to free myself.  I also needed the support of my AA brothers and sisters to remain committed to that freedom that sobriety brings.  So the spiritual solution and support that AA offers combined with the deeper understanding of addiction that Rational Recovery offers are powerful tools for recovery.

 

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley