By Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet, MSW, RSW
I have really been struggling with trying to lose weight and get fit. Every time I get into a good groove with my eating well and exercising, I find myself deciding to ‘treat myself’, which ends up spiraling back into my less healthy habits and back at square one.
Why am I doing this, and how do I move past it?
Oh, the spirals of attempts for healthy living. I would venture that at least three quarters of the people who were reading your letter were nodding their heads in empathy and understanding of your dilemma. Making healthy lifestyle changes can put an incredible strain on a person’s psyche. With all the temptation and social pressure to use food as soothing and/or celebration, it is often incredibly difficult to form new habits and make food choices based on nourishment and well-being.
Let’s start with turning one misconception on its head. Usually, when we think of changing our eating routines or exercise patterns we think of this as changing habits. So we try to intervene by just willing ourselves to do something different. Most of us have heard that it takes a certain amount of tries to form a new habit, so, we just keep trying it, hoping it will eventually stick.
As we’re all likely aware, getting the habit to stick proves harder than the motivational tips would suggest, and it proves even harder to sustain. Telling your brain to just do something different without doing some serious work to alter the neuropathways rarely works. Your brain will simply argue with you, until eventually, you’re back in the old habits and your brain is celebrating another victory.
In my eyes, “will power” is a dirty term that only serves to make us feel lousy about ourselves for trying desperately to muster it, and usually failing. This is because, while it is behaviour that we want to change, it is our thoughts that make us behave the way we do in the first place. So trying to change behaviour is like putting the cart way before the horse.
Your brain is a complex structure of neuropathways that dictate your patterns of thought. As a result of these thoughts, you behave accordingly. A behaviour becomes set when thoughts about this behaviour become very well worn neuropathways. Catching and correcting our old ways of thinking can be tricky. Trying to forge a new path when there is a well-worn one already set directly at your feet takes deliberate effort. If we attempt to change our behaviour without structurally and systematically changing our neuropathways, we will always be fighting against the stronger of the two, the old worn path of thinking that swoops in when sheer will is faltering. And who can resist its message: “hey, go have that cheesecake, it will make you feel good and you deserve it!”
The real solution is to start by observing and changing our thought patterns around food and exercise, only then can we hope to alter the behaviours themselves.
Assess the true costs and benefits of the healthy and unhealthy behaviours.
You can start by writing out a list of costs and benefits of the unhealthy behaviours. Be honest about the benefits you see, and then scrutinize them – are they truly benefits or have you just come to see them this way? Is there a healthier way to get your needs met? Then, write out a list of costs and benefits of the healthy behaviour and put that list somewhere central. Keeping the list on your fridge or bedside table makes it easier to review as much as possible.
Identify internal and external triggers.
Most of us have certain triggers that provoke our desire for our unhealthy behaviours. Some of these triggers are external: going out with friends, getting your paycheque, having a day off or snack foods around the house to name a few. Some triggers are internal: emotions states such as sadness, boredom, anxiety, etc. It’s important to identify your triggers so that when they hit, you are ready to respond with the tools below. If you can’t think of them, spend some time just observing yourself. Pay attention to what is going on for you just prior to a craving or desire for a habit you would like to kick.
Identify all beliefs that arise when you are triggered.
These beliefs can take several forms. Try to split them up into the categories below, so you are better able to catch them, and then challenge them. Try to consider all of the beliefs that might crop up when you are triggered, and then write down the counter argument.
- Anticipatory beliefs: the beliefs you hold that tell you doing the bad habit is going to be great.
- Relief-oriented beliefs: the beliefs you hold that tell you that the bad habit will relieve all sorts of emotional discomfort: boredom, sadness, shame, anxiety, tension and depression, to name a few.
- Helplessness beliefs: the belief that you are helpless to the craving, and that you may as well give in.
- Happiness beliefs: the belief that just giving up this new “health kick” and sticking with the bad habit will make you happier overall.
- Endlessness beliefs: the belief that the cravings will never stop.
- Permissive beliefs: the belief that, “you deserve it this time” or that, “my circumstances are different” and “it’s okay, it won’t hurt”.
Make fun a priority.
Before you start to plan your new healthy lifestyle, make sure you are not setting yourself up to fail. Now is the time to make fun a priority – fun separate from the unhealthy behaviours. What are some things that really give you a sense of pleasure and make you feel replenished? If you can fit in exercise here, all the better! Just make sure it’s exercise that you know you enjoy – not something that feels like an obligation.
Create a plan to gradually add in healthy exercise and healthy foods that you enjoy.
If you don’t like the gym – find a ravine or nature area near you and walk or ride your bike. Try something fun and new like swimming, rock climbing, dancing, Zumba or a team sport. Make a list of all the healthy foods you would like eat more regularly and then cross off anything you absolutely can’t stand. Rate the foods out of ten from most enjoyable to tolerable and start week 1 with the best of that list. Try to go just one level higher than your current lifestyle. i.e If healthy living were on a scale of one-to-ten, and you’d put your current lifestyle at a 3, try to go up to a 4 the first week, no higher! And if the next week, you are struggling to go up to a 5, just remember that as long as you maintain the 4, you are doing well, and slower is better.
Remember that a healthy lifestyle cannot feel like a punishment or it will never stick. As you begin to observe exercise and healthy eating as enjoyable and manageable, your thoughts about it as a chore will begin to shift, and it will become easier to increase your healthy habits over time.
Implement the plan while observing and challenging unhealthy thoughts.
Now, implement your plan and focus on observing what happens when you fall off course. Watch for your distorted beliefs to appear, and when they do, try your best to challenge them. At first just try writing down all the thoughts that go through your head. Then, once you’ve gotten good at this, start trying to identify the type of belief they are, and challenge them with the counter argument. You probably won’t be able to do this in the moment you are having the craving at first, so start out with simply identifying your thoughts retroactively, after the craving (or bad behaviour) has passed or concluded. Challenging these thoughts will start to rework some neuropathways, so the more you do it, the easier it will start to become to interrupt the distorted thoughts as they are happening and skip the bad habit altogether.
As always, all of these steps are easier said than done. If you find you are struggling with them, you are definitely not alone. Do not hesitate to seek a CBT therapist to help you work through any unforeseen challenges and keep you moving toward your goals.
I maintain a regular mental health blog on the darouwellness.com site, so check back in for more on coping with anxiety, depression, insomnia, emotional difficulties, trauma and general coping and mental wellness.
Kristina Schwalm-Bacquet is a Mental Health Therapist, Supervisor and Instructor.
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