What if there was blueprint to help you break bad habits?
How would more willpower change you? What would you become capable of?
Over the past few months, I’ve been talking with Todd Becker, who claims that willpower, eyesight, body weight, and more can be improved through hormesis– a normal biological reaction the body has to short, moderate stress, and which anyone can use to their own advantage.
By using these reactions to our advantage, he says we can change ourselves into the people we want to be.
So, for the past few weeks, I’ve been interviewing him– learning why he takes daily cold showers, or abstains from food for up to 30 hours at a time. I’ve also been doing it myself– fasting once a week and more– with great results.
Today, we’re going to show you how it’s done.
Why you would expose yourself to stress on purpose? Answer: To have a transformative effect on your mind and make 2011 the year you want it to be. Enter Todd Becker.
Positive change doesn’t happen without taking risks.
It doesn’t happen without facing fears, getting off your butt and taking the first step.
But when you face those fears and take the plunge, you usually find that things aren’t as bad as you imagined. You almost always gain by taking on the new challenge. Even the failures become learning experiences.
That’s good advice for making one-time changes like leaving a bad job or relationship, starting a new venture, or getting yourself organized. The problem is that it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
It’s all well and good to bite the bullet and join a health club and start a diet. But can you sustain your efforts past the initial resolve and enthusiasm — or will you inevitably backslide? You can resolve to be more diplomatic at work or more understanding at home, but can you do that when feel stressed out and frustrated, when you’re at your weakest?
To make lasting changes to your behavior and habits, you often need to change the way you react.
Your reactions to food, people and events can be deep seated, visceral, and automatic. Hunger pangs sabotage your attempts at dieting. A hot temper undercuts your relationships. This often seems to be where “free will” ends and physiology takes over.
The conventional wisdom is to accept that we have such “hard wired” responses while finding ways to sidestep them.
Diet experts advise us to eat frequently to avoid cravings and the risk of bingeing. Drug and alcohol treatment programs like Narconon and AA promote the gospel of lifelong abstinence: once an addict, always an addict. That’s certainly one approach, but it leaves you vulnerable to relapse from the slightest chance encounter with the forbidden fruit.
I think there’s a better way.
Use behavioral science to “re-wire” your urges and your emotional and physiological responses. A century of science shows us how to do this, starting with Ivan Pavlov in the early twentieth century and continuing through to more recent breakthroughs in neuroplasticity, backed up by studies of brain imaging, neurotransmitters and hormone signaling.
Here’s the key insight. Our emotional and physiological responses are conditioned by cues in our environment, and these cues are often subtle and act synergistically.
Let’s take the example of appetite for food or the urge to drink. We get hungry at certain times of day, in response to certain aromas, visual cues and even social situations. These cues activate the hormones and neurotransmitters that control our appetite.
I used to find that just driving up to my house triggered my urge for a cocktail. It was a conditioned response. A similar thing happens when a particular person’s nagging tone of voice can get you riled up.
Our responses to these environmental cues are not hard-wired. They can be changed, often within a matter of weeks.
This approach has been developed into a method called cue exposure therapy, a rapid yet long-lasting way to “extinguish” cravings or negative feelings. Among other uses, it has been found to be effective in overcoming drug addictions, with low relapse rates.
The idea is to expose yourself to the cues that normally trigger the problem response, but without letting it happen. Repeat this enough times and the response eventually dies out.
Here’s the real meat of it. A study of the most effective elements of cue exposure therapy found four key success factors:
1. Make the cue exposure as realistic and varied as possible.
Alcoholics who detox in articifical hospital settings often relapse. A more effective alternative is to practice avoidance– or even moderate drinking behavior– at the bar and at home. Apply this lesson to dampen your appetite: Expose yourself to different aromas and visual cues in different settings and times of day– without eating. Mix it up.
2. Repeat the exposures frequently, and at varying time intervals.
Frequent cue exposure leads to more rapid and permanent deconditioning. So plan multiple “sessions” with several unreinforced exposures at each session, and vary the time intervals between sessions.
This helps prevent “extinction bursts,” where cravings will come back stronger than before. Think of casinos: they know well that unpredictable payout schedules at the slots are a powerful inducement to gambling. Firmy resist these delayed extinction bursts, since they’ll undermine your success.
3. Include an active behavioral component.
Deconditioning works best when addicts don’t merely view and handle their drug, but actually go through the motions of smoking or shooting up without actually ingesting the drug. One very effective thing I did to decondition my own food cravings was to prepare scrumptious meal for family and friends, without partaking myself. They feasted, with some amusement, while I sipped an iced tea itself.
4. Follow up the cues with an alternate response, not just the lack of a response.
Extinction works best when addicts replace their habit with an alternative response to stress. Apply this idea the next time you are stuck in traffic or are confronted by a cranky boss. Have an enjoyable CD ready for the traffic slowdown. Actively plan to intently listen to the boss without firing back.
Think of these actions as training exercises– ways to strengthen your ability to handle stress without overreacting.
Finally, reward your success! Whenever you outwit your bad habit, follow up with some pleasant activity. Go for a walk, call a friend, or read a good book. Get creative with this. Plan your training episodes in advance, just as you schedule visits to the gym.
Remember: Willpower is a muscle. Training makes it stronger.
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