“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle
When working with clients, there is often an assumption that therapy takes place mostly inside the office. That is, the most effective aspect of therapy lies in the discourse between the therapist and client. Though forming a strong relationship between practitioner and client is important to change, much of the important work takes place between sessions. In Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), this interim work is called homework, and is assigned by therapists to put into practice the techniques and goals established in session.
For a long time, I was opposed to homework and was under a similar assumption as many of my clients. However, as I became more self aware, I realized that I had unofficially been using homework in my own life to change how I felt and behaved. For example, tracking how many hours I sleep, calories I consume and setting goals each week to improve my sleep schedule and diet.
The key to homework in a therapeutic setting is that it brings awareness to our habits and allows us to note the relationship between our habits, the environments we occupy and how we react to them. Practitioners such as Albert Ellis (REBT), Aaron Beck (CBT), Christopher Martell (BA), and Steven Hayes (ACT) have developed behavioral interventions built around the notion that our habits have a tremendous impact on how we feel and think about our lives.
Below are 4 Ways Our Habits Shape Our Mood:
- You are what you think. One of the touchstones of CBT is the notion that our thoughts and speech become habitual as well, and that the way we think has an effect on how we feel and behave. For example, using the word “should” can cause us to feel guilty about certain obligations in our life as well as our self image. I should be slim and fit, I should call my parents more often, and I should enjoy my job/house/hobby/life more often. A simple word like “should” externalizes the demands on our lives and can cause us to feel out of control. However, replacing “should” with “I would like to” places the demand and expectation back under our control. Notice how “I would like to call my parents more often” evokes a less guilt-ridden response than “I should call my parents”.
Being mindful of the way we talk and think can have a tremendous impact on how we feel about situations, people, and activities. Check out a list of more cognitive distortions here.
- What we do affects how we feel. As with our thoughts, the way we spend our time has an effect on the way we feel. For example, spending time in rush hour traffic causes us to feel much different than watching our favorite show or having coffee with a friend. Seems like common sense, no? However, what we often overlook is the role scheduling plays in our lives and happiness. The more we engage in enjoyable activities, the more likely we are to continue doing so and the more we do so, the better we feel.
The cornerstone of Behavioral Activation therapy is the scheduling of activities that are enjoyable or make us feel accomplished. Actively scheduling in more enjoyable activities or rewarding ourselves for accomplishing difficult tasks can help keep us motivated and improve our overall health.
- Escape can be a trap. One impediment to habit change is avoidant and escape behavior. Avoidant behavior is just as it sounds, avoiding situations that we find aversive or uncomfortable. For example, those who feel anxious in large crowds avoid parties, concerts, grocery stores, etc. in order to escape the feeling discomfort caused by such situations. It is more enjoyable to be away from these situations, so the behavior is reinforced (perpetuated) by the escape behavior.
Since avoidance can be more comfortable than encountering the aversive situation, it becomes habituated. This can cause problems, such as isolation, loss of contact with friends and avoiding situations that are otherwise enjoyable. Gradually re-engaging in pleasurable activities and reducing avoidance can help improve mood by increasing the opportunities to feel accomplishment and enjoyment (Cuijpers et al., 2007).
- Small steps make a big difference. Starting a new habit can be difficult and changing an old one can seem impossible. This is normal. However, if we recognize the habits that cause us to feel anxious, depressed or just uncomfortable, then we have won half the battle.
Awareness is the first step in changing our habits, both mental and behavioral. After noting the situations, thoughts, or feelings that prove problematic, we can slowly develop ways to combat them. It helps to start small and build gradually towards the goal. For example, if you want to begin a walking routine, start by simply purchasing or wearing the proper exercise clothes for the first week. Next, walk for 5-10 minutes around the house or in the neighborhood. After that becomes routine, add 10 more minutes and so on until you’ve met your goal (ex, 1 hour, 3x a week). If the next step becomes too much, cut the goal back and begin to build it up again.
Through gradual exposure, situations, objects, and emotions become more tolerable and less aversive. After some time and a consistent schedule, they may even become pleasurable! For more detail on gradual exposure and how to design such a program, click here.
Practice Makes Perfect
Like with most skills in life, our physical and mental behavior takes time and practice to shape. Being aware of how we think, feel and behave provides us with a great advantage by allowing us to understand the role we play and how we react to life’s events. While this is a simplified version of the techniques mentioned, even the smallest positive change in our routine and thinking can gradually build into a new habit.