Change: Embracing it and Making it Happen
Life in recovery is not easy. It involves making fundamental changes in all levels of your life. It means adopting new habits, restructuring your priorities and becoming “mindful” (making decisions in a logical, well-thought-out way) vs. being “mindless” and responding automatically, via habit, to environmental cues and inner urges.
Why Change is Often Resisted
Typically, we will only initiate fundamental life-altering changes when they become absolutely necessary. Recovery, in many ways, necessitates a complete “overhaul” of one’s way of life…which is a scary prospect. It requires leaving our comfort zone, where we feel safe and know what to expect.
Comfort zones rely on habits to be maintained. We are all, essentially, creatures of habit. Breakthroughs in neurobiology research and brain imaging techniques have given us tangible proof that the brain is hardwired (at a subconscious, inner level) toward habit-making and habit maintenance. So in some ways, when we try to make change happen, we are going against our natural instincts. But fortunately, our conscious, “executive” (thinking, reasoning, planning) brain areas have the power to override habituated, subconscious programming.
Free will and choice can save us from living our lives as “robots”, responding in an auto-pilot fashion to behavioral habits and habituated sensory cues. Below are some ways that you can use your executive brain to override subconsciously programmed, unhealthy brain habits, including addictive tendencies.
Tip #1 Start with a DUI – A Definite Unwavering Intention
In order to make change happen, you have to first set your mind to it. This means creating an intention–a mental idea in support of your chosen action. When considering the choice to begin or maintain recovery, what is needed is to start with a “DUI”, which in this case, stands for a definite unwavering intention.
As you know, even with the best of intentions, we don’t always find our way to our goals. If intentions are not definite enough–if they are vague, unspecific or based on mixed feelings rather than full commitment–they may fail to lead to the next step, which involves implementing our plan and taking specific steps carry it out. To lead to success an intent must also be unwavering, with the idea/choice solidly held in mind for the long haul, and not just at the start of a change effort.
Tip #2 Add Sufficient Motivation
Intentions get us started, but plans can easily get sidelined if we don’t have sufficient motivation, or incentive to continue moving along our intended path. Motivation is an inner drive that encourages us to move toward a goal. It involves both inner inspiration and outer drive and ambition. This is where creating conscious, well-thought-out, determined choices comes into play. It is through the use of our brain’s executive (thinking, reasoning, planning) capacities that we “trump” the instinctual, programmed habits that so often derail recovery efforts.
Tip #3 Know Where You Stand
Knowing the stages of change that relate to the recovery process, and where you are in that process, can help you stay the course. A study by recovery researchers J.O. Prochaska and Wayne Velicer, published in the American Journal of Health Promotion in 1997 introduced a six-stage model of change that is still widely used today.
The six stages include:
- Pre-contemplation: This is the initial stage of decision-making related to change, At this stage, you really haven’t given serious consideration to making a significant change in your life, such as entering recovery. You may not yet be fully aware of how serious your substance use is, or you may be rationalizing your substance use.
- Contemplation: Once you have become at least willing to consider making a change, you are in the contemplation stage. You haven’t yet made a commitment, but at least you are open to the idea, and you may seek out more knowledge to help you make your decision.
- Determination: If you are at this stage, you have committed to making a change. You are ready to put a realistic plan of action together to make the needed change happen.
- Action: This is the stage where you finalize your plan and put into action. This may involve the use of a number of different strategies: finding a support group, accessing personal counseling, going to rehab or other using other options.
- Maintenance: During this time period (which may last many years), you are committed to sticking with your plan and making the change last. However, in the case of recovery, relapse is often a part of this stage. The threat that you will return to old, self-defeating patterns is a realistic concern that must be constantly addressed.
- Termination: This is the stage you are hoping to achieve. It marks the time when you feel secure in your ability to maintain the course; and you feel that if relapse should occur, you will be able to get yourself back on track. You recognize that the knowledge and experience you have gained can see you through.
Work Your Plan and Stick With It
No matter where you currently are in the stages of change, keep in mind the following as you navigate your way through your change process:
- Stay motivated: Your motivation is probably going to be strongest when you first decide to make a change. That is when the need for change is fresh in your mind and the pain or problems that are part of your motivation are most noticeable and pressing. But as time goes on and memories of the pain and problems fade, so can your motivation and determination to stay the course. You can refresh your motivation by periodically reviewing your initial reasons for making this fundamental change in your life. You should review the losses that were associated with the old behavior (possibly impaired relationships, loss of job, loss of self-respect, etc.) Also review what you have gained by making the decision to change. Weighing the pros and cons should renew your motivation.
- Remember to be “mindful” vs. “mindless”: Employ your executive brain functions. Each time you consciously over-ride automatic, habituated responses, you strengthen your capacity to use this important brain area to help you make wise choices in the future.
- Plan to survive setbacks: In recovery, setbacks are unfortunately often part of the process. Instead of seeing a slip or relapse as a failure, use it as a learning experience. Plan ahead for what you will do should this happen. Remind yourself of the tools and resources you have gained. Use these to help you re-energize your intentions and motivation and then go back to working your plan.
- Think long term: Remember, fundamental, life-altering change is intended to be permanent change. As you work your change plan, you will gradually move from prioritizing immediate, short-term pleasure in favor of choosing long-term life improvement.
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