Habits: Friend or Foe?

Habits compel us to act against our better judgment. When changing them, it can seem like the whole world is challenging our intentions.

Changing habits is not easy.  It can seem like as soon as we decide to change a behavior, the whole world conspires to challenge and thwart our courageous intentions.  Habits compel us to act against our better judgment and reason, despite our desire to act differently.  Therefore, habits can be our best friend or our worst enemy, depending on their nature. 

Habits are formed through the continued repetition of a certain thought or action. The behavior or thought then becomes automatic and requires little thought or conscious effort to engage in that activity.  Habits and feelings are closely tied together because there is a sense of normalcy that can be comforting and predictable, while change often feels extremely uncomfortable.  Anytime we want to make a change in our lives, we often must learn to act differently then we feel.  This can be a powerful statement to remind ourselves on a regular basis when working on changing a pernicious habit.  

In the process of early recovery, there are often urges and cravings that can feel compelling and strong.  You may want to have a drink or use your go-to substance to feel differently and avoid the discomfort of feeling uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, I have not heard of, nor know of anyone who has ceased problematic substance use without having to sit with discomfort to a greater or lesser degree.  The more we can get comfortable being uncomfortable, the more we build the habit of acting on our best judgement because we know it is in our best interest long-term.  We began to no longer do what feels good only in the moment yet causes long term suffering, both in our lives, and the people most important to us.  You are probably already practicing this in your life to some extent, and if you have a desire to change problematic substance use, you can start taking positive action right now!  

Forming helpful new behaviors is like building a muscle, the more we work at it the stronger and easier healthy behaviors are to establish.  Keep in mind we must often first establish a new habit before we begin to experience the benefits of this new behavior.  We cannot go to the gym for a few days and expect our body to look and feel the way we want it to or eat healthy for one week and presume we are good to go.  By taking small steps in the right direction to establish a firm habit of exercising regularly, or eating healthier, we create a new lifestyle that can continue to compel us to carry on that helpful habit, even when we feel like acting differently!  By practicing this in your life regularly it will assist your recovery efforts by training you to confidently know that you can do what you set your mind to regardless of how you feel.  

I suggest trying the following formula to make positive habit change a daily routine in your life.  

  • Choose one action you can perform daily that feels uncomfortable doing, but you know will be beneficial for you. 
  • Identify the time of day, specific place to engage in this action, and amount of time you will spend doing it
  • Make this extremely manageable, an action and length of time you are 99% confident you can achieve daily.  
  • Set reminders on your phone or use post-it notes to help you remember your new action
  • Take action today and start engaging even if you feel uncomfortable.  Reminding yourself that you are comfortable, being uncomfortable!

Example:  New behavior is to exercise for at least 5 minuets every day.  I can perform 20 push-ups, 20 squats, and a minute or two of planks.  I will do this each morning as soon as I get out of bed.  

Practicing Mindfulness

If you or someone you know is struggling with problematic drinking or using behaviors, chances are you feel a great deal of stress, anxiety, fear, and depressive thoughts surrounding this behavior. Managing thoughts about cravings, regrets of the past, and fears of the future can feel so overwhelming that engaging in mind-altering chemicals seems like a rational idea. Practicing mindfulness helps avoid the fears of the future and the resentments and regrets of the past by bringing one’s attention to the present moment and a more solutions-focused attitude.  

As I discussed in the previous post about how beneficial mindfulness can be, it begs the question of how does one practice mindfulness when the mind is constantly jumping from one thought to the other? Simple answer: with patience and persistent practice. When we begin to notice our habitual mode of thinking it can be easy to get discouraged because our habitual thinking may be very pessimistic and negative.  That is a good sign you are on the track to changing!  Through mindful awareness of our thoughts we give ourselves the opportunity to choose a different, more helpful thought process. 

Integrating mindfulness into your daily life may not be as hard as it first appears because we are already practicing some mindfulness each day.  Anytime your mind is fully in the present moment and not focused on the past or future, you are practicing mindfulness.  Setting an intention to practice mindfulness can be a helpful first step to push you to make an action plan on how you can be proactive in establishing your new cognitive habit.  Here are some easy and quick ways you begin using mindfulness in your daily life.  

-Showering:  This is an excellent time to put your attention on all the bodily sensations that are felt from washing your hair, scrubbing your body and feeling the relaxing water flow over your skin.  When a thought comes to the mind, calmly and patiently bring your attention back to the flow of the water coursing over your skin.

-Driving: While driving alone focus on the surrounding sights and be fully present absorbing all the visual scenes and sounds around you.  The goal is to observe objectively, without labeling and judging what is happening on the roads.  Simply observe and notice without engaging in judgmental thoughts.  

Eating:  With each bite put your full attention on the taste, texture, temperature, and smell.  You can use this technique with a meal or a dessert item you can really savor slowly.  

Sitting still:  Sit upright in a chair with eyes closed and simply put your attention on your breath.  Watch each inhalation and exhalation with deepest attention.  Challenge yourself to be mindful for three consecutive breaths.  If, and when, a thought comes into your mind, acknowledge the attention has wandered, then calmly and patiently bring it back to the awareness of your breath.  Practice for 3-5 minutes 2-3 times a day.  

Practicing mindfulness changes the structure of our brain, and over time will change the way we think.  Having more conscious control over our thinking and not being dragged aimlessly from thought to thought, we are better able to engage in daily activities with calmness and poise.  You can learn how to consciously choose which thoughts to entertain and which thoughts to simply observe, and then let go.  

Mindfulness – Where is your mind?

Mindfulness: By thinking differently, we develop new neural connections and diminishing the use of old connections, changing the landscape of our brain.

Many of us have heard of the term mindfulness and may feel like we have a general understanding of what mindfulness is about.   Common answers I hear when asking clients what mindfulness means to them are being aware, present, not focusing on negativity, and being in the here and now.  What commonly follows their definition is that mindfulness is very difficult to do regularly, doesn’t help them much, or it is a struggle to practice with so many distractions vying for their attention.  Being someone who has been practicing mindfulness daily for over a decade, I can agree that it is a challenge and a battle.  Just like any other learned behavior or habit change, it takes patience, consistency and determination to establish the habit of mindfulness on a regular basis. 

Why is mindfulness helpful?  Numerous studies strongly suggest that by practicing mindfulness one can lower anxiety and depression, cope with life stressors more effectively, improve life satisfaction and increase one’s sense of self-esteem and many other synergistic health benefits.  While all that sounds good, from a practical standpoint I find mindfulness helps me enjoy each day more fully, the time spent with others and activities I engage in.  The older we get the faster time seems to move. By practicing mindfulness, I find I can retain more information and fully experience each moment.  My attention isn’t concerned about the past (which is associated with regret or depression) or worried about the future (associated with anxiety and fear).  

Mindfulness can be so impactful because it is literally regrooving our brains.  By the simple act of thinking differently, we are developing new neural connections and diminishing the use of old connections, thus changing the landscape of our brain.  This is a subtle change and something that does not happen overnight.  An analogy: look at a picture of yourself 10 years ago, do your notice that you have changed physically?  Most of us would notice specific changes in our appearance when referencing a photo but we did not notice these changes happening daily, in the moment.  The same thing occurs with cognitive changes because they are so subtle, but when we look back a year or more we may notice we are completely different people.   

I’ve trained myself to get in the habit of thinking, where is my mind?  By being in the present moment, focused on the task or activity at hand fully and completely, I can plan for the future, handle stress, interact with others authentically, and live a life with no regrets because I am here now, experiencing the moment and nothing else.  This mindset helps me reflect on the past and what I have learned as well as plan for the future consciously and objectively, if those are things I need to think about.  I am no longer at the mercy of my intrusive thoughts aimlessly dragging me through the mud of regret, resentment, sadness, anxiety and fear.   

Next post we will jump into techniques and strategies for integrating mindfulness into our daily life and how to overcome common roadblocks which continue to pull us into fear, anxiety and depression. 

Coping with Uncertainty

Coping with Uncertainty realize recovery

Living in a world filled with uncertainty can be stressful. Most of us feel our best when we are in a routine; when our routine is uprooted, we feel anxiety and stress. The world at large has recently been “un-routinized” due to the spread of coronavirus. Research shows that people respond to uncertainty differently and those with a higher tolerance for uncertainty are less likely to experience anxiety, low mood, and negative thoughts and feelings. Here are some suggestions for coping with uncertainty and changes in daily routine.

  • Focus on what you can control:  As much as possible, avoid dwelling on things out of your control. While you cannot control the governmental regulations and policies, you can control how much time, energy and attention you put on these matters. Try putting your attention on what you can do to improve yourself, uplift friends and family, and your community. Begin a new daily routine and do your best to stick to it.
  • Remember past successes:  No good or bad thing lasts forever. Reflect on times in your life when adversity came and how you were able to overcome. When fear and anxiety begin to manifest, redirect your attention and remind yourself that you’ve coped with adversity in the past and can do the same now.
  • Stay Productive:  Our minds can only focus on one thing at a time, so by engaging in activities, we can find a reprieve from intruding negative thoughts. With coronavirus quarantines, think about light projects around the house that have been put off in the past and begin working to accomplish those. Watch home workout videos on YouTube and engage in physical exercise at home. This will improve your immune system, release endorphins and help improve sleep.
  • Minimize exposure to news and social media:  When we feel stressed about something, we want answers and information. Constantly checking the news or social media outlets for updates will only increase your sense of uncertainty. Try limiting your exposure and plan one or two times throughout the day to check for updates. It is especially important to avoid news outlets before bedtime.
  • Engage in consistent self-care:  During times of uncertainty, we often forget to take a moment and do something enjoyable for ourselves. During quarantine, consider taking a relaxing bath, sleeping in, take an afternoon nap, order delivery food and watch a movie, ask for a massage from a significant other, etc. However you choose to practice self-care, the important thing to remember is that the activity should be something safe and enjoyable for you.
  • Practice relaxation and mindfulness techniques:  When we are anxious and stressed, we are kick-starting our fight-or-flight response, which sends a cascade of hormones into our system. This response is designed to increase our heart rate, alter blood flow, and decrease activation of our brain’s frontal lobes, where our higher, rational decision-making happens. There are apps you can download, such as Headspace, and plenty of guided exercises on YouTube. 
  • Seek Professional Help:  Despite following these suggestions you may find a heavy burden still exists. Working with a counselor can help you find individual ways to better cope with stress, uncertainty and how to develop a healthy routine.

While we cannot avoid the unexpected, by building our stress tolerance, we can better cope with uncertainty.