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A Lot of Talk, Little Action.

I often suggest some kind of stress management technique to my patients, like meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, or just doing a neglected hobby. But come our next meeting, when I ask how it went, many confess they were just too busy, forgot, or were stymied by some other obstacle. This lack of follow through is disappointing as a therapist but it is stagnating for patients who want to change. Why do we struggle to improve our health and what can we do to increase the odds of our changes sticking?

Why is Change so Hard?

When we try to set a goal to change our behaviors, we often think of one specific behavior at a time. We say we are trying to diet, or exercise, or be more positive. But this way of thinking is really too simple when it comes to goal setting. If you want to learn to meditate more, you actually are talking about changing not just one behavior but several. To meditate more, you may have to find extra time during the day. Which means getting up a little earlier during the morning, let’s say 10 minutes? But this means waking up earlier and that bed feels so comfortable and you did get to sleep late last night so you’ll just get up earlier tomorrow. But the next night that means turning off Gray’s Anatomy (or whatever you’re watching these days). But when you do get up you have to resist the urge to jump on Facebook and read the latest about your cousin the squirrel trainer. And the list goes on.

Behaviors Compete for Our Energy

Just to do something as simple as meditating for 5 minutes a day requires changing several other behaviors. These other behaviors pull us back to our old, comfortable habits. Like the strands of a web they are connected to each other and resist separation. Meditating more in the morning isn’t as easy as setting the alarm or taping your goal on the bathroom mirror. It means putting off some of your favorite activities or sacrificing a little sleep. Behaviors are tied together and resist separation.

Everyday Behaviors and Mental Health Exist in Webs

Our behaviors are interconnected whether it’s keeping our desk organized or coping with depression. As a therapist, I think of coping with depression, for example, as a series of interconnected behaviors. But instead of thinking of coping with depression as one kind of behavior change, I see it as a bunch of behaviors we are trying to improve. This might include learning to be more optimistic, assertive, or engaged in self-care activities. Take any one of those goals and each one will have a series of behaviors tied to it. Being more optimistic requires thinking about the positive side of things, which means resisting the urge to feel that things just bad as you feared, drawing up memories of when things went wrong for you in the past, and telling yourself if something does goes wrong you’ll never be able to handle it. All of these behaviors (or more accurately thoughts) try to pull us into a pessimistic reaction when we fight to see the sunny side of things.

How do You Change Our Behaviors?

  1. Identify a behavior you want to change. Try to start with small, clear goals, like trying to call more friends, rather than something large like overcoming shyness. From a practical standpoint, it’s easier to practice calling a few good friends over the course of the week rather than trying to rewrite your shy personae.
  2. Think of at least three related behaviors that are tied to your target behavior, e.g., whenever I have free time I feel too physically or mentally exhausted, I only have free time when my friends aren’t available, I free pressure to do other things instead of calling my friends.
  3. See if you can identify one small thing you can change for each related behavior. For example, for feeling too physically/mentally exhausted, I would ask myself if that is true all the time or if not am I making a blanket assumption about this. If I really was exhausted, I might consider how to find a way to make my work or personal commitments more manageable in a simple way. Say, could I leave work on time if I’m staying late. Or give myself an extra 10 minutes for myself when I leave work (rather than rushing to do a bunch of other chores).
  4. Measure your change. Are you calling friends more? How much are you working on interconnected behaviors?
  5. If your target behavior isn’t changing then ask yourself whether there are related behaviors that you have to continue to work on.

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