How to Learn Healthy Behaviors That Stick
Substance abuse is heavily related to stress. That’s a common theme among research findings into the public health dimensions of drug and alcohol addiction in America. It’s also a trend I’ve encountered in clinical practice.
Clients entering treatment for a second or third time will report that they had succeeded at sobriety for a period of six months, a year, or longer, until one day, suddenly, they relapsed. When that downward spiral happens, the trigger is often either some big life stressor, like the loss of a job or a marriage, or the accumulation of smaller daily stressors, like a long commute or financial issues. In either scenario, the culprit is stress.
Developing healthy coping skills is thus a huge focus of what we do in drug and alcohol treatment. We want clients to leave here with better stress resilience. The hitch is that stress resilience requires learning new patterns of behavior that will replace an old habit of drugs and alcohol. On that note, below are some tips for how to learn healthy coping behaviors that stick.
Start a healthy habit or coping skill that’s manageable for you.
Take exercise, for example, which is a well-established tool for coping with stress, one we encourage clients to do regularly. If you’re not used to exercising, start with a manageable daily goal of maybe 15 minutes of rigorous cardiovascular exercise or even a brisk morning walk. In other words, don’t immediately sign up for the Iron Man and expect to carve out two hours of running, swimming and/or bicycling every day of the week. The best way to ensure success is to position yourself for it by starting with a habit that you’re more likely to be successful at. The Iron Man can come later.
Take the “3 R’s approach” to any new habit, skill or discipline you’re aiming for.
The 3 R’s, developed by researchers in behavioral psychology, stand for “Reminder, Routine, and Reward.” The approach is one that author and writer James Clear writes about at his blog, which is devoted to the science behind forming good habits. Clear has studied successful people across a wide range of disciplines — entrepreneurs, artists, athletes and more — to uncover the habits and routines that have contributed to their success.
To learn a healthy new behavior that will stick, try the following, compliments of the 3 R’s:
- Set up a regular reminder. This can be as simple as picking one thing you already do by default everyday, such as brushing your hair in the mirror or eating breakfast, and then pairing that activity with the new habit you’re hoping to learn. That way if, for example, you’ve begun a daily habit of saying one or more positive self-affirmations, brushing your hair in the mirror or eating breakfast can become the automatic “cue” for positive self-affirmation.
Alternatively, if you’re hooked to your Smartphone, schedule time for that new behavior. Then program an alert that audibly reminds you when it’s time to go exercise or say your positive self-affirmations.
- Initiate a routine. You’ve got to regularly engage in a positive behavior in order for it to stick. That’s really what it means to initiate a routine. Only by doing that exercise or self-affirmation over and over again will it become a routine.
- Reward yourself. Drugs or alcohol become a habit when the user experiences a sense of pleasure in the reward circuits of the brain, and comes to associate drug seeking with positive reward. A similar principle explains how healthy and commendable habits form. Every time you engage in that positive activity that you’re trying to make a lasting discipline, celebrate with something that makes you feel good about yourself. Celebrating with a reward can be as simple as patting yourself on the back for a job well done every time you exercise. Or, for every time you complete your positive affirmations, the reward may be another quarter in that jar of quarters you’re collecting — the end goal being that brand new motorcycle or a trip to somewhere exotic.
Remind yourself that a healthy habit, skill or discipline needs at least 30 days in order to stick; but take a bite-sized perspective by focusing only on what you can accomplish today.
On the one hand, it’s good to be aware that you’ll need a minimum of 30 days’ practice to get into the groove of a new habit, so that it sticks. On the other, it’s intimidating to think about 30 days from now and all of the self-discipline you’ll need to keep up a healthy behavior over the course of 30 consecutive days. So shelve those thoughts about tomorrow, the next day or 30 days from now! Instead, keep your focus on how you’ll achieve your positive new behavior today and today alone. That bite-sized goal — of inserting one manageable, healthy new behavior into this day — can seem a whole lot more achievable.