Creating A Lasting Change Through Mindfulness
It’s currently late January, a time of year when many people focus on behaviors and habits. Many try to focus on New Year’s resolutions, and those have varying degrees of success – largely because making significant changes can be a challenge. At any point throughout the year, taking a mindfulness-based approach of our attitudes towards change and transition can improve results, giving us a deeper perspective on a new behavior.
Several years ago, I met with a client – we’ll call her Jean – who wanted to address her alcohol use through counseling. Her main goal was quitting alcohol use altogether, and she was exploring realistic ways to be successful. In addition to individual counseling, she also wanted to incorporate Naltrexone, a medication approved by the Food and Drug Administration to help people who have opioid and alcohol use disorders, in her recovery.
In counseling, Jean shared that she had experienced a number of challenging life events, including the divorce of a long-term marriage. She found that drinking and isolating became a nightly routine for her and she became disconnected from what had been a healthy, active and social lifestyle. She knew that stopping her alcohol use was a priority for her. She had sat with her own realizations for some time before reaching out to me, and this period of self-awareness can be as important as the act of talking about it with somebody.
This was a big step for Jean to take, as anyone who has quit or thought about quitting drinking can relate. Verbalizing the desire to change to another person is an act of taking accountability and shows a level of willingness to make that change happen. It’s important to realize that this involves a process that happens over time, rather than all of a sudden.
The Gradual Process of Change
In the early 1980’s, psychologists James Prochaska and Carlo DiClemente developed the Transtheoretical Stages of Change model (Prochaska and DiClemente, 1983). This idea involves a person’s readiness to implement a new behavior in his/her life. The Stages of Change can be applied to any change a person experiences, and is especially useful when it comes to drug and alcohol use.
In short, Prochaska and DiClemente identify the following stages:
- Pre-contemplation: You are unaware that a change needs to happen; you don’t associate any problems in your life with a specific behavior, such as drinking.
- Contemplation: You begin “connecting the dots,” associating consequences with behaviors you’ve engaged in, and you think about what could happen in your life if you made a change. This can involve theoretically telling yourself you’ll do something different, as in, “someday I’ll quit drinking,” or, “maybe I should start exercising more.”
- Preparation: You start looking into ways to make a change. You research options, look into the logistics and details of how you can realistically make this change happen, and make a plan of when you will act. Note: it was at this stage when Jean reached out to me to ask about counseling.
- Action: You stop the behavior. This can also be seen as starting a new behavior. For example, it’s no longer talking about when you’re going to quit drinking, it’s the day that you go without a drink.
- Maintenance: You do what is needed to carry out the change, whether it’s an absence of a behavior or a presence of new activities. It can be both. For a change to be successful long-term, this stage is ongoing.
There are some people who have added a Termination stage, which determines that the old behavior is no longer present. With recovery from drug and alcohol abuse, a person is always in recovery, so the termination stage does not apply.
- Relapse: This stage involves a return to the original behavior. It’s very common for people to enter this stage, and can actually be a great learning experience if processed with proper guidance. Relapse can lead back to any of the previous stages mentioned above.
It’s important to note that there’s no assigned length of time associated with each stage. A person’s readiness to change can have a significant impact on how successful they are in maintaining a new behavior. It can be based on a specific time of year, but this isn’t always the case. If you’re changing something just because it’s New Years and you don’t have much personal investment in it, it’s not very likely to stick.
Incorporating Mindfulness in the Change Process
As you progress through the different stages of change, you’ll notice various thoughts associated with each stage. For example, in the preparation stage, you might think, “I’m drinking a lot these days but if I stop, I won’t be able to see my friends any more.” While this type of thinking might be accurate, it can be helpful to identify what else comes up with that thought – and this is where Mindfulness can be a great resource for making change last.
Mindfulness has been around for centuries and in the past two or three decades, has recently gained in popularity in western culture. Mindfulness is defined as a non-judgmental way of noticing your thoughts, experiences, and emotions. It is a practice that involves objectively looking at what is happening at any given moment. It does not mean that you enjoy whatever you’re doing, and it doesn’t equate with being passive or non-confrontational. It’s a practice of observing yourself and situations from a neutral, detached point of view.
To revisit the idea of exploring thoughts at the different stages of change: it’s likely that when you’re thinking about changing a behavior, you come up with both the pros and cons associated with it. You might also come up with a long list of reasons to quit drinking or using, yet you still have difficulty following through on it. To view this process from a Mindfulness perspective, you can notice these thoughts of pros and cons as taking place in your mind, which is simply a part of you. So, instead of you coming up with the pros and cons of a potential change, your mind is coming up with the pros and cons. Another way of looking at this is called Beginner’s Mind.
Beginner’s Mind is a concept of mindfulness that involves putting aside all that you know about something and approaching it as if you are seeing it for the first time. This includes a level of curiosity that can allow you to see things from a new perspective.
In the process of observing your thoughts associated with quitting drinking or using, for example, you can become aware of physical stress or discomfort that comes up. This could be associated with removing yourself from your social group, or no longer having the perceived level of comfort that goes along with using. Previously, you may have been quick to avoid this kind of discomfort, and you’ve done this by either internally saying “nah” to the idea of quitting, you’ve distracted yourself with something else, or you’ve sought the behavior you think calms your mind: drinking or using. By incorporating Beginner’s Mind, you can allow yourself to sit with this discomfort, even if it’s just a little longer.
Practicing this strategy can also help you recognize that every thought you have, at any given point in time, is a new thought. It may seem familiar, and it’s often something that’s come up before, but you’re in a moment that you’ve never experienced before. By incorporating Beginner’s Mind with thought awareness, you can also realize that what comes after the thought – behavior – doesn’t have to be the same thing as before. Since this is a new thought that you are observing with complete curiosity, you have the opportunity to apply a different behavior, which can lead to a different outcome.
Dealing With Resistance
It’s important to expect that incorporating Mindfulness takes time and practice before it becomes effective. If you’re new to Mindfulness, a good way to start is to sit for a few minutes and try to be aware of your breathing. You should expect your mind to wander off – and not if but when that happens, notice your attention is on something else and gently bring your awareness back to your breathing. It doesn’t mean you are “bad” at meditation, it simply means that you’ve become distracted. When you get distracted, stressed, or bored, this is when you use patience. Remember that patience isn’t needed when things are comfortable and easy; it’s needed when things are difficult.
If you don’t notice results the first or second (or tenth or twentieth) time you try this new mental approach, keep at it. You will notice your mind’s tendency to give up and return to what’s familiar, and the very fact that this occurs is evidence that a process of change is happening. It’s okay if you don’t enjoy it: implementing change brings about new thoughts, and with this will come some resistance and struggle.
When you become aware of your resistance, just notice it. Be curious about it: where in your body is your resistance occurring? Do you have tightness in your chest? Are you suddenly restless and feel the need to move? Are you thinking of a task you were supposed to do and feel the urge to do it right now while it’s fresh on your mind? Notice where your mind is going and call your attention back to the present.
This practice is challenging even for long-time meditators. A meditation is “successful” when you notice what you notice. Mindfulness is not about reaching a state of peace, calm, or happiness. It doesn’t get rid of your problems; it gives you a chance to experience your problems from a more manageable place. As you allow yourself to sit with your own unique discomfort, you will also have new and unique moments of joy, appreciation, acknowledgement, and strength.
In closing, take some time to reflect on the areas in your life that you are considering a change. Ask yourself what is important about doing something different, and what are you hoping to gain from this change? Acknowledge what comes up and give yourself space to invite and accept all that comes with your decision.
Prochaska, J. and DiClemente, C. (1983) Stages and processes of self-change in smoking: toward an integrative model of change. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 5, 390–395.