A Key To Undoing Anxiety, Depression And Mental Health Challenges
After decades of helping people undo all sorts of mental health challenges including anxiety, it has become very clear that many behaviours and feelings we experience are deeply rooted as habits, if not just a habit itself.
A habit is an automatic action or reaction, which would feel strange or different if you did not experience it. It is a very powerful and deeply embedded neuropathway in our subconscious that allows us to run on autopilot for many activities and thoughts. It is estimated you face over 35,000 decisions per day, so it is a very good thing we have this automated habit system to look after most of them! It would be overwhelming and likely impossible to consciously make these many decisions in the 14-18 hours that you are likely awake!
Many of these automatic reactions or habits seem to be hardwired at birth, many are learned as we grow up and experience life. The jury is out on whether any one of us can re-wire most or all of our habits. I suspect some things cannot be changed, but I have been consistently amazed by what habits my clients’ have been able to change over the years.
The ability to re-wire our brain is called neuroplasticity. There are three keys to neuroplastic change (or learning): Intention, Repetition, and Reward. Pretty much anything we do with these three characteristics we learn or become – from learning to kick a soccer ball, to becoming a better partner by learning not to fly off the handle when your partner, once again, does that thing that used to drive you nuts!
Research tells us that the three keys to creating are a habit are very similar: A Queue, Repetition, and Reward. Sometimes we call a queue, a trigger.
Habits tend to reside in our brains in webs. That is, they seem to be interconnected, even if the subject matter is not related. Break-even a small habit, the web is less stable, and it is easier to break the next. And, if we use the keys of neuroplasticity, Intention, Repetition, and Reward, we can rebuild and strengthen that web with positive habits.
Mental health challenges like anxiety, depression, addictions and even compulsive behaviour such as in OCD can be viewed as laden with habits. We trigger a panic attack at the thought of getting on a stage or feel the need to go back and check if we locked the door, over and over. We walk past a bar or get yelled at, we reach for a drink, or we face the prospect of going into a job we don’t like and stay in bed. We experience a Queue and Repeat our behaviour, and on some level, it is Rewarding.
By considering these experiences as habits we have found whole new ways of learning to rewire the automatic habitual behavior into something new and better.
We rewire a new positive habit by approaching it from both ends. We work up to breaking big habits, by intentionally and repetitively weakening the web by breaking little habits. And we create new little habits by using queues to repetitively trigger you to do the new thing with intention, repetition, and reward. Slowly layer these changes taking advantage of the weakened web and celebrating the small victories.
There is no quick fix here, brains take time to rewire. Don’t focus on your big long-term goal but focus on the reward of accomplishing the small new habits and succeeding in the reward of breaking the small old habits. Remember, the small stuff does not always have to be related to the long-term goal – it weakens the web as well, allowing you to make progress towards change. Find your reward in the small steps and then the success of each multiple layers.
A big part of what comes into play here is making some time and space to start to notice your thoughts and behaviours so you can get off autopilot and make new choices. That is called being present, and it is mainly what the science of meditation is about.
How long does it take to break a habit? You may have heard the cliché of 22 days – that was a poor extrapolation from some 1950’s research around amputees. It appeared it took amputees on average 22 days to stop experiencing a ‘phantom limb.’ Current research tells us it can take from 18 to 254 days to create a habit, so call it an average of 12 weeks. If you love spontaneity you are likely on the shorter end of the time frame. If you are a hard-core organizer who likes to schedule life, it may take a bit longer.
A research program in Australia for 75 people wanting to lose weight used habit breaking/building techniques. Over 12 weeks 3.5 kg was the average amount of weight lost. Not a large amount for some but the impressive news is that 12 months later, the participants were continuing to lose weight slowly and steadily, and many didn’t even notice, their habits had become so engrained! Unlike the vast majority of dieters, there was no regaining of the weight! They had re-wired their brains and changed their habits!
Using our knowledge of habits and neuroplasticity we can make great strides in mental health outcomes. Yes, it not the quick fix we used to believe medication could provide. It’s a slow, steady long-term fix that sticks.
Face it, if we knew how to do this alone, we would all be rich, skinny and happy! But we don’t, so we aren’t. If you want relief from your anxiety, depression, addictions or even OCD, its time you worked with a psychotherapeutic coach to build a program that starts easy and layers small incremental changing habits for solid long-term results. Skinny and happy can happen, and that may likely make the rich part a bit easier!
Book an appointment with us now by clicking REQUEST AN APPOINTMENT on our website, www.TheAnxiety.Clinc We know how to help you to make change.
“Fear is a very natural response,” said Kaufman, who specializes in treating anxiety disorders at his Toronto-based clinic.
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