Is it time to change something about your life so you can be healthier and/or feel happier? Are you trying to lose weight? Exercise more? Manage a chronic health condition? Learn new thinking habits? Improve your mood? Create passion or purpose or life balance?
We all have health and wellbeing behaviors we could improve upon. Unfortunately, change is HARD. Really hard.
Even when change is really important to us and our intention is strong, we may find that something is holding us back. This can leave us feeling deflated and frustrated and focused on our failures.
Sometimes our response to perceived failure is to sabotage or blame ourselves. This is where all habit change requires us to examine our thoughts and beliefs.
You don’t need to blame yourself because nothing is actually wrong with you! Let’s consider what the psychological sciences tell us about behavior change.
The science of behavior change informs us that change is a PROCESS, not an event.
This might be worth repeating: Change is a process, not an event!
Meaningful change usually occurs over time! Change occurs in predictable stages, and requires different events to occur at each stage. It is also normal to take steps backward from time to time. In fact, according to the Stages of Change model, there are three stages of change that must occur before we are even ready to take action! This is why most New Year’s Resolutions fail: we try to spring into action without first doing the preparation work.
What are some of the elements that might prepare us for the hard work of change? This article will consider five: information, mindfulness, positivity, authenticity, and knowing our destination.
Start with a roadmap.
In our age of information, this is often where we start. And we have a great deal of information at our fingertips!
The National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion has stated that you can avoid chronic disease by
- Not smoking
- Eating healthy
- Getting regular exercise
- Avoiding too much alcohol
- Getting enough sleep
- Getting preventative medical care
- Practicing healthy behaviors
I’ll bet you knew that already, didn’t you? That is because you already know a lot about your health. Health information is everywhere! And if you need to learn additional information, for example, about a healthy Paleo diet or where the nearest fitness gym is, or how to practice good sleep hygiene, you probably know just where to find that information!
Sometimes an online search is all we need and other times we might read a book or consult a medical or mental health professional. But either way, you have the information covered.
Many of us believe that if we have the right information, we can move ahead with behavior change. The problem is that information alone is not enough! If information was sufficient, we could all use Google to become the perfect example of health and wellness!
Why do we fail when we try to take action armed only with only information? Because this is like trying to move a vehicle with no wheels or drive someplace with only half a map (and no GPS). Let’s consider some additional change tools.
Before we drive anywhere, we first need to release our parking break. But finding the release may take some searching.
Much of the information that you most need in order to prepare for behavior change is unique only to you!
You might ask, for example: Do my symptoms really flare when I eat gluten? Why do I sabotage myself by staying up late watching Netflix? Do I always respond to stress with this pattern of behavior? If only we could Google our subconscious for these answers! These internal answers are essential pieces to your roadmap.
Each of us has subconscious patterns of behavior that we learned when we were younger. We may have developed a particular habit to cope with one situation, and since then clung to that habit even though it has become self-destructive in other contexts. Or, in order to make sense of the world or our experiences, we may have internalized beliefs about ourselves or the world that were not, in fact, true. (Consider, for example, a belief that you need to blame yourself or beat yourself up in order to achieve success, or a belief that you must be perfect in order to have worth as a person).
Science tells us that, without knowing it, we operate our lives utilizing these subconscious thoughts and patterns most of the time. We tend to go through each day on an “automatic pilot” that may be sabotaging our best efforts over and over. However, with the practice of mindfulness, we can begin to see these patterns and understand ourselves better. With this understanding, our choices become less automatic and more deliberate. It is with new mindful understanding that sustained behavior change becomes possible.
Mindfulness can be practiced formally – with various forms of meditation – or informally – by taking a breath and observing our thoughts and behaviors through each present moment. A health and wellness coach can also help with mindfulness by asking powerful questions to bring your attention to thoughts you might not be noticing.
As you begin to strengthen your self-awareness, you may find that you also have greater compassion and understanding for yourself as well as improved self-control. Your roadmap will be more complete and a kinder place to be.
- Connection to the Positive
If you are driving on a dangerous road and you attend only to the dangers around you, rather than on the road itself, where might you end up?
Our ancestors had to focus on dangers and problems of their worlds in order to survive in the wilderness. Even though we no longer live in the wilderness, we tend to think with the same “negativity bias”. This means that most of the time, we tend to imagine the worst and focus on our weaknesses. Meanwhile we dismiss the good things.
Unfortunately, in today’s world, our negativity does not always serve us well. Negative ruminating thoughts tend to increase stress levels, often causing anxiety and/or depression, and ultimately this affects our physical health too. Becoming mindful of these negative thoughts is a first step, but what happens if we also replace these thoughts with more positive ones?
We know a great deal about this from the field of Positive Psychology, which studies healthy and flourishing lives. Connecting to a more positive point of view is correlated with better physical well-being and mental health. It also can help us to become more motivated and confident.
A health coach is trained to apply positive psychology to help you remain within a positive mindset. The coach may ask you to focus on what you want instead of what you don’t want. What is meaningful and important to you? Who in your life will benefit from your behavior change? When in your life do you feel most confident? What do past successes tell you about what you need to do now? How will you celebrate when you succeed? Notice how the energy within you shifts and grows as you consider these questions. This is the power of positivity!
If we keep a positive focus on where we want to go, we’re more likely to be able to get there.
Attending to our authentic values and strengths is like putting gas in our tank.
Each of us, no matter who we are, has authentic values and strengths that come easily and naturally to us. When we apply these natural pieces of ourselves to our daily actions, we become more energetic and motivated. When we instead try to live our lives according to the expectations of others, we may find ourselves drained of our life energy.
It is important to consider our deeply held values when making a change in behavior. If we are unaware that we are trying to make a behavior change that somehow conflicts with our personal values, we may feel unable to move forward once again.
Take the example of intermittent fasting. An individual who is sold on the benefits of fasting and wants to keep their eating within a window of only 8 hours per day may find themselves in conflict if this means they no longer eat meals with their family or friends in the evening. Examining the importance of social eating times and addressing this need in the intermittent fasting plan may help to eliminate barriers to behavior change.
It is also important to consider your personal strengths. Your character strengths, according to the VIA Institute on Character, are pre-existing patterns of thought, feeling and behaviors which you utilize in your very best performance. Using your strengths comes easily to you, is exciting and energizing, and puts you on a fast learning curve. Knowing your authentic strengths and how to use them towards your healthy behavior goals may propel you forward!
Many helping professionals, including myself, were previously trained with a more negative mindset; searching for evidence of weaknesses and focusing the client on their problems. However, positive psychology and the science of character strengths tells us that it is by utilizing our strengths, not overcoming our weaknesses, that we succeed!
Robert Biswas Diener, in his book Practicing Positive Psychology Coaching, illustrates this point with the analogy of a sailboat. He points out that it is essential to acknowledge when there is a hole in the boat. We can plug that hole – just as we can acknowledge and address our personal weaknesses – but the boat will still just float on the water. It is when we turn our attention to the sails of the boat – our personal strengths – and direct them into the wind that the sailboat will finally begin to glide to its destination!
- Know Where You are Going
You can’t get to your destination if you don’t know where you are actually going!
It is essential to create a clear picture of what you want your life to be like, and how you will recognize when you have actually arrived. This is another reason that New Year’s Resolutions often fail – lack of clarity.
Setting goals is an important part of creating your roadmap. Goals will be more powerful if they are positive, specific, measurable, attainable, reasonable, and time-sensitive. So in coaching we take time to figure out the details.
Even more exploration of your desired destination may bring you to create a wellness vision. A vision is different from a goal because it feels more like a vivid dream. Creating a wellness vision requires many of the elements already discussed. It involves taking a positive mindset, practicing mindfulness and knowing your authentic self, and then creating a dream where you are utilizing your strengths to live your best life. The more clear your vision becomes, the more energy and motivation you will have to move towards it.
Health coaches are trained to utilize evidence-based information, positive psychology, the science of character strengths, mindfulness, powerful questions, and wellness visioning to help you make the changes you need to reach your health and wellness goals. The health coach won’t tell you what to do, though. Rather, they will partner with you to utilize your expertise on your life. Their job is to empower you!
Would you like to learn more about working with a health coach? Contact me below to request a free, no-obligation discovery session!