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

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

Four Ways to Increase Your Joy

If you find that your life has become bland, boring, or blah, there are four easy ways to bring joy and vitality back to it.

In his brilliant Guide to Stress-free Living, Dr. Amit Sood of the Mayo Clinic, says that we will all experience an infusion of sparkle and zest in our lives if we awaken to novelty: the appreciation of uniqueness.

He suggests four ways to do this:  acceptance, transience, flexibility, and kindness.

Acceptance

“Our brains, designed as fault-find machines, need to be reprogrammed to seek and find joy,” says Soot. The downside of fault-finding is we lose our sense of enjoyment in what we are trying to improve. This holds true for family and friends alike.

When we treat these people in the same way as a fix-up project at home, we are adopting an air of superiority that distances ourselves from them.  Instead, notice their most positive attributes, and accept their flaws as you accept your own.

To increase your awareness of these winning traits, write them down.  When the person demonstrates the trait, let him or her know how much you appreciate it.  Nothing will incentivize the person more than praise.

Transience

This is your awareness of the finite. It is “a perception that this moment is precious because it will never repeat,” says Soot.   Life changes quickly.  Think about this:  How many more times will you see your dearest friend?  You don’t know.  It could be that she must suddenly relocate because she is needed at the Dallas office.

Cherish the time you have with these loved ones and be fully present to the novelty of your life experiences.  “Each day spent being partially present,” Soot says, “is a day that’s not fully lived,”

Flexibility

Soot recommends that we stay flexible in accommodating other people’s preferences.  It not so much what you do together, it is being together that is important.  Notice the novelty of what you are experiencing together in the moment.  You will find that others find enjoyment in our preferences if we express our enjoyment of theirs.

“Flexibility will come naturally if you’re genuinely interested in the other person.”

Kindness

Whether we are aware of it or not, kindness is a trait that we universally seek in other people, particularly those who have the honor to be within our inner circle.  People will respond positively to your kindness.  By blessing others, you will bless yourself.

“All the world’s spiritual teachings  instruct us to be kind,” says Soot.

Notice the difference in how you feel when you negatively judge someone verses when you see them through the eyes of compassion.  If in doubt about what to say in a situation with a loved one, ask yourself: Is it true?  Is it kind? Is it necessary?  A random act of kindness can light up a person’s entire day.

So search for the extraordinary in the ordinary until you can see the divine in all things.   Awaken to novelty by paying attention to the details that make people, animals, and nature unique.  Challenge yourself to engage in fresh experiences, especially those that push you beyond the boundaries of your comfort zone.  And infuse your daily experiences with acceptance, transience, flexibility, and kindness.  By putting these practices in action, your ho-hum like will be transformed by joy.