What are some realistic behavior modification steps?
Last week I was chatting with my good friend Carmen. We were discussing behavior changes and the frustrations that come from a lack of it. Change comes hard for most of us. Especially as we get older! This is an opportune time to talk about the topic of behavior modification. A new year is just around the corner! You have the opportunity to start with a clean slate, making healthy choices and good decisions from the start! However, are there realistic behavior modification steps we can take?
We all have a hard time with behavior change. I am pretty goal oriented and driven. Usually, when I set my mind to something, I do it, come hell or high water. Nonetheless, I still struggle with this sometimes 🙄. It is particularly prevalent in adult medicine, but you don’t have to be a physician to witness it. As I mentioned, we can just look for examples in our own lives.
Hard times with behavior change
Let’s take, for example, the smoker. It is known, proven and discussed ad naseum: smoking causes cancer and chronic lung problems. Emphysema and dying asphyxiated from lack of air is a horrible way to go. The smoker knows this, but continues to smoke. Obviously, there is an addiction component to this and quitting smoking IS, without a doubt, difficult. However, when I think about the alternative being a horrible death, in my mind, there is no other choice! Stop smoking or risk earlier death, take your pick. No brainer for me. We know, unfortunately, that this is not the case for many smokers because they continue to smoke.
What about the diabetic with poorly controlled sugar? They are told the end result of poor glycemic control is chronic kidney disease leading to end stage kidney disease and dialysis. They have seen the poorly controlled diabetics with amputated fingers, toes, legs. Yet, many still eat what they want and don’t take their medications. Then there is the extremely overweight person who has heart disease and wont lose weight. The person who had a heart attack and needs to start exercising and improve their diet, but still won’t. The person who has had 10 sexually transmitted diseases, is at risk for HIV and still won’t wear a condom. Even the person who feels sleepy every morning, but still refuses to be in bed at a reasonable hour (offender 🙋🏻♀️!). I could go on!
We all know what is good for us, but in a large or small scale, we all choose not to do it at some point. Of course, the repercussions of these may be huge or minimal, depending on the issue. Why is it that changing behavior patterns is so hard? Even when we know what is good for us? And if we decide to modify our behavior, can we turn that new behavior into a long-time habit? Is there a good way to modify behavior? Any realistic behavior modification steps?
Behavior and Psychology
B.F Skinner, the famous American psychologist, talked about operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, the occurrence of a response yields a reinforcement to the individual’s action. It can be what Skinner called a positive reinforcer, where the person receives something good for the action. It could also be a negative reinforcer, like a punishment. The negative reinforcers should extinguish a behavior, in theory, because the person would want to avoid the negative action. This is all well and good for rats, but it would appear we are a bit more complicated than this.
Four realistic behavior modification steps – Get on the change train
How can we get ourselves or our loved ones to change that bad habit and turn it into a good one? While we have no guarantees, here are few things that research suggests could increase our success rate:
- Set your intention, ideally in a positive statement: Research suggests that positive intentions yield better results that negative intentions.
- A positive intention would state “I will eat more greens today.”
- A negative intention would state “I will not eat candy today.”
For whatever reason, our mind seems to respond better to positive statements than negative ones, but either one will have an effect (maybe similar to Dr. Skinner’s positive and negative reinforcers?). It may be that we inherently don’t like the “you can’t do that” mentality. Maybe it makes it easier for us to disengage from our goals.
Regardless, at the start of your day, set your intention for the health change you want to make and write it down. Refer to it throughout the day and remind yourself. Try to make it a positive statement, rather than a negative one. Also, be specific, it will be easier to follow, rather than making vague statements.
- Change your attitude towards the behavior: It is harder for us to break bad habits if we still like them and view them positively.
Often times, when we try to break bad habits we try to avoid the habit, but still enjoy it. Studies suggest this may predispose us to fail. Instead, try to change your perception towards the behavior.
For example, if trying to quit smoking, avoiding the cigarettes, but still liking to smoke will be less likely to lead to success. Perhaps, trying to look at the content of the cigarettes, thinking of the tar content (look at a picture of tar and think of what you are putting in your body).
You can also start thinking about how you miss out on being with friends and family because many places don’t allow smoking anymore. Whatever negative association you can find! This will start turning the switch in your mind and start changing your perception of smoking from something enjoyable to something repulsive and disgusting. If you can get to that point, you increase your chances of success.
- Look at the short term: Although we always have an ultimate goal and it’s great to have an endpoint, experts suggest this can be overwhelming.
If you focus too much on your ultimate goal, you may forget to appreciate the initial changes you achieve. Set weekly or even daily goals. Keep truckin’ along and don’t mind the final destination. If trying to lose weight, set a weekly 1-2 pound goal and stop thinking about the total weight you would like to lose. After all, both life and health are journeys, not destinations!
- Work on your perseverance: Changing behavior is a process, it takes times and it’s easy to lose motivation. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall. We all do! Just “dust yourself off and try again.” The people who achieve their health goals are the ones that get right back up when they fail and try again. The most important thing is that you don’t quit. Forgive yourself and move on.
I will add one more thing that I think is incredibly helpful. It has certainly helped me follow through with things. Tell someone your plans, so you can be held accountable. This can really make a difference and it’s one of the reasons health coaches have become so popular! Of course, you don’t have to hire a health coach for this, you can just tell a friend. Perhaps you can talk and help each other work towards your goals. Accountability helps many people keep moving forward no matter what.
All right, that’s a wrap for this week! Try these and see if they help you achieve those life and health habit changes you have been wanting to make!
What techniques have you found useful to help you achieve your health goals? Share them below!
Here is to a healthy 2018, full of accomplishments and healthy habits! ❤️