DESPITE the best intentions for the new year, the reality is that by next month, gym memberships will lapse, chocolate will replace carrots and Candy Crush will edge out Moby Dick.
It’s not (only) that we’re undisciplined slugs. It’s that much of what we know — or think we know — about habits is wrong. Here’s a primer that might help keep you off the couch and on the treadmill.
MYTH 1 We fail to change our habits — or start good new ones — because we lack willpower.
Not really, said Wendy Wood, a professor of psychology and business at the University of Southern California. Willpower, she said, is more about looking at those yummy chocolate chip cookies and refusing them. A good habit ensures you’re rarely around those chocolate chip cookies in the first place.
To create or change a habit, you have to think much more about altering your environment and patterns of living than work on steeling your mind, Professor Wood said, because “behavior is very much a product of environment.”
Habits — at least good ones — exist so we don’t have to resist temptation all the time. Imagine if every morning you had a debate with yourself about eating cake or cereal for breakfast. Instead, most of us form the habit of eating something relatively healthy for breakfast, which bypasses the lure of the cake altogether.
That’s why it’s sometimes easiest to start or break a habit during a major transition. This may sound counterintuitive, but a new house, job or relationship breaks old patterns, said Gretchen Rubin, author of the forthcoming book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.”
“People say wait a few days to get settled, but don’t,” she said. “Start right away.”
MYTH 2 We fall back on bad habits when stressed. In fact, good habits persist even in times of high anxiety, Professor Wood said. A study of which Professor Wood was one of the co-authors found that students who already had unhealthy diets would eat junk food when stressed, but those who already had the habit of eating well — or of reading a newspaper or of going to the gym — were just as likely to do that.
MYTH 3 It takes about 21 days to break or make a habit.
That number seems to have cropped up in the 1960s and somehow became “fact” with no real proof. But in 2009, researchers in Britain decided to take a deeper look by studying how long it took participants to learn new habits, such as eating fruit daily or going jogging. The average was 66 days.
But individuals’ times varied greatly, from 18 days to 245 days, depending on temperament and, of course, the task involved. It will most likely take far less time to get into the habit of eating an apple every afternoon than of practicing the piano for an hour a day.
MYTH 4 You need positive thinking to break or make a habit.
“We find positive fantasy is not helpful and may even be hurtful when trying to reach a desired future or fulfill a wish,” said Gabriele Oettingen, a professor of psychology at New York University and the University of Hamburg.
Over years of research, she discovered that people need to pair optimistic daydreams about the future with identifying and imagining the obstacles that prevent them from reaching that goal — something she calls mental contrasting.
Say you want to stop being a procrastinator. The first step is easy. Imagine how it will feel if your work is completed with plenty of time to spare, if you can sleep instead of pulling an all-nighter, said Professor Oettingen, author of “Rethinking Positive Thinking.”
But don’t just resolve to stop procrastinating. The second step is to identify what holds you back from changing yourself. Is it fear that you won’t succeed? Is it the adrenaline rush of frantically working at the last minute? Is it because of negative feelings toward a boss or teacher?
The mental contrasting needs to be in the right order. It’s important to “experience our dreams, then switch gears and mentally face reality,” Professor Oettingen said.
Doing it the opposite way — imagining the obstacles and then fantasizing about changing habits — doesn’t seem to work as well, research shows.
MYTH 5 Doing things by rote, or habit, isn’t good in most cases. It’s better to be mindful of everything we do.
Research shows that most people repeat about 40 percent of their activities almost every day.
“We only have so much room in our brain,” said Ian Newby-Clark, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Guelph in Canada. “It would be incredibly taxing if we had to mindfully plan every step of our day.” Habits free us up so we can think about other things.
And while some habits are objectively bad — smoking, say, or being consistently late — most are subjective. “Habits are only good or bad to the extent they’re consistent or inconsistent with your goals,” Professor Wood of U.S.C. said. It’s a bad habit when “it starts interfering with other goals you have.”
For example, many people said their resolution this year was to cut down the time they spend online.
But why? Because it’s an inherently bad thing to do? Or is it an obstacle to spending more time reading books or riding a bike or learning to knit?
After thinking about it, you may choose to spend less time on your computer or phone. Or you might decide it’s not so terrible in limited doses and shed the habit of feeling guilty about it.
MYTH 6 Everything in moderation.
“There’s a real difference among people about how easily they adapt to habits,” Ms. Rubin said. Some see habits as liberating; some see them as a trap. Some prefer to make a huge change all at once; others proceed step by step.
“I’m in the small minority that loves habits,” Ms. Rubin said, adding that she tends to find it easier to abstain from certain things altogether. For example, she eats no carbohydrates.
“People said I was doomed to failure, but it’s not true,” she said. But, she noted, “it’s a mistake to think the abstainer is more disciplined. For me it’s easier to be an abstainer than have to deliberate each time whether I can eat something or not. Others would go nuts if they abstain.”
That’s why you shouldn’t listen to people who tell you you’re doing it wrong if it works for you, she said.
Also, people shouldn’t fear that their habit will dissolve if they don’t practice it daily.
“If you lapse once or twice, you’re not ruined,” Professor Wood said. “That’s a misconception.”
And that leads to …
MYTH 7 Shame and guilt keep you on track.
No. People need to be kinder to themselves, showing self-compassion if they lapse, Ms. Rubin said. But it’s a fine balance between treating yourself kindly and making endless rationalizations and excuses.
“I might mindfully make an exception,” she said, such as choosing to eat a traditional Christmas cake every year. “But I’m not making excuses in the moment: I’ll hurt the hostesses’ feelings. You only live once. It’s the holidays.”
One last piece of advice: If you want to be in better shape, get a dog. Professor Wood said studies show dog owners have lower body mass indexes. But here’s the catch: That’s only true if you walk the animal.
Grounding Techniques are activities you use when you feel overwhelmed by feelings, thoughts, sensations. These techniques help a person move their focus away from what is overwhelming them to something else. That something else is preferable healthy and supportive to their wellbeing. Below is a list that clients and patients have mentioned over the years of things they do that help them ground.
- Get ice or ice water
- Breathe – slow and deep, like blowing up a balloon.
- Take your shoes off and rub your feet on the ground.
- Open your eyes and look around. See yourself in a different place than.
- Move around. Feel your body. Stretch out your arms, hands, fingers.
- Peel an orange or a lemon. Notice the smell. Take a bite. Focus on the taste.
- Pet your cat, dog or rabbit.
- Spray yourself with favorite perfume.
- Eat ice cream! Or any favorite food. Pay attention to the taste.
- Call a friend.
- Take a shower.
- Take a bath.
- Go for a walk. Feel the sunshine (or rain, or snow!)
- Count nice things.
- Dig in the dirt in your garden.
- Turn lights on.
- Play your favorite music.
- Hug a tree!
- Touch things around you.
- Frozen Orange – put your nails into it – the cold and the smell can bring you back
- Pull up the daily newspaper on your browser. Notice the date and read a current article.
- Stomp your feet to remind yourself where you are. Press your feet firmly into the ground.
- Try to notice where you are, your surroundings including people, sounds like the t.v. or radio.
- Concentrate on your breathing. Take a deep cleansing breath from your diaphragm. Count the breaths as you exhale. Make sure you breath slowly so you don’t hyperventilate.
- Cross your legs and arms. Feel the sensations of you controlling your body.
- Call a friend and ask them to talk with you about something you have recently done together.
- Take a warm relaxing bubble bath or a warm shower. Feel the water touching your body.
- Mentally remind yourself that the memory was then, and it is over. Give yourself permission to not think about it right now.
- Realize that no matter how small you feel, you are an adult.
- Go outside and sit against a tree. Feel the bark pressing against your body. Smell the outside aromas like the grass and the leaves. Run your fingers through the grass.
- If you are sitting, stand. If you are standing sit. Pay attention to the movement change. Reminding yourself — you are in control.
- Rub your palms, clap your hands. Listen to the sounds. Feel the sensation.
- Speak out loud. Say your name or significant others name.
- Hold something that you find comforting, for some it may be a stuffed animal or a blanket. Notice how it feels in your hands. Is it hard or soft?
- Eat something. How does it taste, sweet or sour? Is it warm or cold?
- If you have a pet use that moment to touch them. Feel their fur and speak the animals name out loud.
- Visualize a bright red STOP sign to help you stop the flashback and/or memory
- Step outside. If it’s warm, feel the sun shining down on your face. If it’s cold, feel the breeze. How does it make your body feel?
- Take a walk outside and notice your neighborhood. Pay attention to houses and count them.
- Listen to familiar music and sing along to it. Dance to it.
- Write in your journal. Pay attention to yourself holding the pencil. Write about what you are remembering and visualize the memory traveling out of you into the pencil and onto the paper. Tear the paper up or seal it in an envelope. Give it to your therapist for safekeeping.
- Go online and talk with an online friend. Write an email.
- Imagine yourself in a safe place. Feel the safety and know it.
- Watch a favorite t.v. program or video. Play a video game.
- If you have a garden, work in it. Feel your hands running through the dirt.
- Wash dishes or clean your house.
- Meditate if you are comfortable with it.
- Exercise. Ride a bike, stationary or otherwise. Lift weights. Do jumping jacks.
In my years f doing groups I have on occasion facilitated men only groups. One issue that comes up is depression. We all have bouts of sadness now and than and when those bouts of sadness interfere with our daily lives than we need to take a step in the direction of change. Below is a handout I often use, particularly with dual diagnosed men.
Symptoms of Depression
Not everyone who is depressed or manic experiences every symptom. Some people experience only a few; some people suffer many. The severity of symptoms varies among individuals and also over time.
· Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood.
· Feelings of hopelessness or pessimism.
· Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness.
· Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities that were once enjoyable
· Decreased energy, fatigue; feeling “slowed down.”
· Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions.
· Trouble sleeping, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping.
· Changes in appetite and/or weight.
· Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts.
· Restlessness or irritability.
· Persistent physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive disorders, and chronic pain that do not respond to routine treatment.
Co-Occurrence of Depression with Other Illnesses
Depression can coexist with other illnesses. In such cases, it is important that the depression and each co-occurring illness be appropriately diagnosed and treated. Research has shown that anxiety disorders which include post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), obsessive-compulsive disorder, panic disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder commonly accompany depression.
Substance use disorders (abuse or dependence) also frequently co-occur with depressive disorders. Research has revealed that people with drug and/or alcohol addiction are almost twice as likely to experience depression.
Depression has been found to occur at a higher rate among people who have other serious illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, HIV, diabetes, and Parkinson’s.
Causes of Depression
Very often, a combination of cognitive, genetic, and environmental factors is involved in the onset of depression. Modern brain-imaging technologies reveal that, in depression, neural circuits responsible for the regulation of moods, thinking, sleep, appetite, and behavior fail to function properly.
In some families, depressive disorders seem to occur generation after generation; however, they can also occur in people with no family history of these illnesses. Genetics research indicates that risk for depression results from the influence of specific multiple genes acting together with non-genetic factors.
Environmental factors such as trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, financial problem, or any stressful change in life patterns, whether the change is unwelcome or desired, can trigger a depressive episode in vulnerable individuals. Once someone experiences a bout of depression later episodes of depression may occur without an obvious cause.
Men and Depression
Men are more likely than women to report alcohol and drug abuse or dependence in their lifetime; however, there is debate among researchers as to whether substance use is a “symptom” of underlying depression in men or a co-occurring condition that more commonly develops in men. Nevertheless, substance use can mask depression, making it harder to recognize depression as a separate illness that needs treatment.
Instead of acknowledging their feelings, asking for help, or seeking appropriate treatment, men may turn to alcohol or drugs when they are depressed, or become frustrated, discouraged, angry, irritable, and, sometimes, violently abusive. Some men deal with depression by throwing themselves compulsively into their work, attempting to hide their depression from themselves, family, and friends. Other men may respond to depression by engaging in reckless behavior, taking risks, and putting themselves in harm’s way.
How to Help Yourself if You Are Depressed
Depressive disorders can make one feel exhausted, worthless, helpless, and hopeless. It is important to realize that these negative views are part of the depression and do not accurately reflect the actual circumstances. Negative thinking fades as treatment begins to take effect. In the meantime:
- Engage in mild exercise. Go to a movie, a ballgame, or participate in religious, social, AA/NA meetings or other healthy activities.
- Set realistic goals and assume a reasonable amount of responsibility.
- Break large tasks into small ones, set some priorities, and what you can as you can.
- Try to be with other people and to confide in someone; it is usually better than being alone and secretive.
- Expect your mood to improve gradually, not immediately.
- Feeling better takes time. Often during treatment of depression, sleep and appetite will begin to improve before depressed mood lifts.
- Postpone important decisions. Before deciding to make a significant transition–change jobs, get married or divorced–discuss it with others who know you well and have a more objective view of your situation.
- Do not expect to ‘snap out of’ a depression. But do expect to feel a little better day-by-day.
- Remember, positive thinking will replace the negative thinking as your depression responds to treatment.
- Let your family and friends help you.
I have been practicing meditation since the mid-70’s and started a mindfulness meditation practice in the mid-90’s. Mindfulness has to do with the quality of awareness that we bring to what we are doing and experiencing, to being in the here and now. It has to do with learning to focus on being in the present, to focusing our attention on what we are doing and what is happening in the present.
Many of us are distracted by images, thoughts and feelings of the past, perhaps dissociating, worrying about the future, negative moods and anxieties about the present. It’s hard to put these thing away and concentrate on the task at hand.
I started teaching mindfulness to patients a few years ago and often used the following as a hand out:
Mindfulness has to do with states of mind. Reason Mind, Emotion Mind, and Wise Mind. Reason Mind is your rational, thinking, logical mind. It plans and evaluates things logically. It is your “cool” part. Reasonable Mind can be very beneficial. It is easier to be in Reasonable Mind when you feel good. It is much harder to be in Reasonable Mind when you don’t feel good.
You Would Use Your Reasonable Mind To:
Build a bridge
Figure out how to double a recipe
Balance your checkbook
Figure out the fastest way from point “A” to point “B”
Emotion Mind describes times when emotions are what influence or control your thinking and behavior. Emotional Mind can also be very beneficial. Emotions are what motivate us to action. Emotions are what keep us attached to others and building relationships.
Emotion Mind can be aggravated by:
Illness, Lack Of Sleep, Tiredness, Drugs, Alcohol, Hungry, Overeating, Poor nutrition and/or lack of exercise, Environmental stress and threats, not taking your meds.
Both Emotion and Reasonable Mind Are Equally Important And Valuable
Reasonable mind gives you a way to solve your problems.
Emotion mind gives you a reason (motivation) to want to solve them.
Wise Mind is the integration of emotional and reasonable mind. Wise mind is that part of each person that can know and experience truth. It is where the person knows something to be true or valid. It is where the person knows something in a centered (balanced) way. It is almost always quiet and calm in this part of the mind.
Everyone Has A Wise Mind!
Some people have simply never experienced it.
No one is in Wise Mind all of the time.
Wise Mind – An Analogy for Wise Mind is like a deep well in the ground. The water is at the bottom of the well. The entire underground is an ocean called Wise Mind. But on the way down, there are often trap doors that stop progress. Sometimes the trap doors are so cleverly built that you actually believe that there is no water at the bottom of the well. The trap door may look like the bottom of the well. Perhaps it is locked and you need a key. Perhaps it is nailed shut and you need a hammer. Perhaps it is glued shut and you need a chisel.