How to Change Habits

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I’ve got quite a few habits I’d like to change, and it’s been on my mind a lot lately. From daily actions I take that harm me more than help me, to automatic thoughts that limits me in major ways, I have plenty of room to grow and change in positive ways. My inspired quest right now is exactly this: how do we change habits in a lasting way? Here’s my brainstorm so far:

1. Mindfulness meditation. This works especially for unconscious, compulsive actions or automatic thinking habits. We keep engaging in habits that don’t serve us because we are not thinking. It’s routine. It’s what we know and find comfortable. It’s a pathway that has been carved in our brain that is of least resistance, much like a river that cuts a pathway through rock and earth will not flow any other way unless a dam is built and a new pathway is carved. This takes a lot of work! Mindfulness meditation can help us wake up from the trance of habitual thinking and action. With practice, we can start to notice the moment we make the decision to act on a habit, or the moment a thought arises that does not serve us. If you want to know more about mindfulness meditation, ask me. It will inspire me to get off on my butt and write!

2. Monitor and change behaviors. This includes several steps.

  • Choose the habit you want to change, and state the habit you want to create positively. For example, instead of, “I am not going to eat crappy food,” you would say, “I am only going to eat healthy foods.” This is important, because your brain follows your thoughts, so if you state what you are NOT going to do, your mind will be more likely to fixate on the forbidden than to focus on the positive change.
  • Commit to creating this new habit. There’s no room for half-assed goals here. You need to make a decision, and it needs to be definite.
  • Consider accountability partners.
  • Break down the practical steps you need to take to actualize the change into your daily life, and make these steps measurable goals. Create a schedule to support these changes. For instance, if my goal is that I want to exercise more, I need to decide how much more, and what I need to do to make my schedule accommodate this. I will then have a definite plan, and it is more likely to become routine. Guess what? Routines become habit!
  • Track your progress. Keep a note of it in your scheduler. Check in with it every day. Feel good when you see yourself doing it more and more.
  • Reward yourself as you meet your goals, that is, if changing the habit and meeting the goals is not reward enough itself!

3. Take it deeper. Sometimes a purely behavioral approach doesn’t work. This is generally because we did not truly commit or because we have deeper work to do around the habit we wish to change. Here are some ideas that you may find fruitful:

  • Examine resistance. A lot of times when we try to change habits, resistance comes up. Looking at this resistance may give you some clues to the deeper issues that may be present.
  • Look at the underlying needs. People engage in bad habits to fill needs that are not being filled in other ways. Ask yourself what is the need you are meeting in engaging in something that you see as unhealthy. Find another way to meet that need.
  • Be compassionate and allow yourself to cheat at times. Rigidity can create a narrow black and white view that makes change impossible. Create some space for yourself to make mistakes. Let yourself breathe, relax, and refocus.
  • Go deeper still. Changing habits can bring core issues to light. Spend some time exploring these issues if you feel they are ripe for healing. Journal. Talk with a friend or counselor. Dream on it. Take time to truly tune into yourself. You are so worth it!

I’ve got a list of 9 new habits I want to create. Now I just need to choose one and take some of my own advice. What about you, readers? Do you have any useful strategies for changing habits that you can share?

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7 Ways to Heal from Stress and PTSD

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the damaging effects of chronic, overwhelming stress. Today, I will follow this up with some ways I learned to heal from these conditions. This all came from a very informative PTSD training with John Preston, Psy.D.

1. Hold and be held. Particularly with babies, tactile stimulation does wonders. In one study, a control group held babies for two hours a day while an experimental group held babies for four hours a day. After six weeks, the babies in the experimental group cried 43% less. This applies cross-culturally. Babies who are held more are least likely to develop PTSD or hypercortisolemia. While the first year is so critical for lifelong brain development, I don’t think human touch ever becomes less essential. Sure, maybe we don’t need four hours a day, but hugs, cuddles, and massages go a long way.

2. Medication. I am not one to believe in going straight for the magic pill, but there are several medications that can be helpful if you are feeling very overwhelmed or out of control. Several types of medication can activate Brain-Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which strengthens neural pathways and can protect the brain from damage by extreme stress. All antidepressants activate BDNF (this is their one common denominator). Others that can be used for this purpose are Lithium, Depakote, Tegratol, Lamictal, and Seroquel. And guess what? Omega-3 fatty acids are also neural-protective. If you think you may need medication, of course talk with your doctor or psychiatrist.

3. Movement. Exercise also activates the neural pathway protector BDNF. It increases seratonin levels as well. Much of the feeling of PTSD is that of being “frozen.” Movement of any kind can immediately snap one out of that feeling.

4. Make choices that increase safety and structure in your daily life. In events of trauma and abuse/neglect, a common theme is powerlessness. Looking at brain chemistry, BDNF decreases when an individual experiences perceived powerlessness. Of course, it is not possible to always be in control of one’s circumstances, but it is possible to make choices that increases the chances of safety. It is also possible to have a regular schedule that increases predictability in your daily life. This will help. If this point interests you, look into the Seeking Safety program.

5. Mindfulness-based stress reduction. I love this one. It is a form of meditation and  consists of simple exercises one can do  to increase one’s mindfulness, which strengthens the brain and increases one’s ability to have control over where attention is placed. There is a lot of good science out there showing that this stuff really works.

6. Facing fears. The act of facing fears actually increases the frontal lobe’s ability to dampen down anxiety. It also gives one a restored sense of self-efficacy and control. When I am at my best, I try to face one fear every day. it is amazingly uplifting.

7. Exposure therapy. This can be useful for people who have been traumatized and feel strong enough to face their trauma. It is one of the most common therapies used for PTSD. Research has shown that exposure therapy strengthens the Arterial Cingulate (AC) and expands neural pathways between the AC and amygdala (remember the top-down control dampening down the anxiety/arousal I talked about last time?). Being able to look at the traumatic event while calm and centered in the present gives one the ability to handle stressful situations more effectively. It also minimizes the effect of the trauma. However, this needs to be executed carefully. An individual needs to learn emotional management skills before he/she begins this work in order to avoid re-traumatization.