The Whitworths of Arizona, bringing science to you in everyday language.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Constructive Caring, #4: Changing Habits

OK, you've lowered your stress level, belong to a great support group, and are aware of some negative thinking habits that you want to change. Now what? Will those negative thoughts just disappear? Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Negative thinking is a habit that takes commitment, time and effort to change. However, people do it all the time and you can too!

To change a habit, you need to notice a specific behavior and make a conscious, personal commitment to change it to a viable alternative. Write this down and tell someone else. Then do it. Reward yourself when you succeed and be gentle with yourself when you forget, and keep trying until the change becomes a habit. (Reference)

Now let's break this down:
  • Notice: You have to be aware of what isn't working before you can change it to anything else.
  • Conscious: Negative thinking is often automatic, like a PlwD's.* But because you can think abstractly, you can make purposeful choices that put you on the road to change.
  • Personal: This is about you, not the PlwD or anyone else. Changing for someone else is like trying to make a bed with a ten-foot pole. It can be done, but not very easily, not very well and the effort seldom lasts long enough to get the job completely done. 
    "I will notice when I use all or nothing thoughts and stop using them."
  • Specific: The more specific your commitment is, the more effective it will be. Chose one specific type of negative thinking and focus on changing it to something more constructive.
    "I will notice when I use extreme, all or nothing, words like "always," "never" in my thoughts and stop using these words."
  • Viable alternative: If you try to stop a behavior or a way of thinking without providing a replacement behavior, you leave a vacuum. Your brain will backfire and go into its default mode of worry. The replacement also has to be something that will work for you. If it isn't, your brain will balk again and the change won't happen.
    "I will notice when I use extreme words in like "always," "never" and change them to more accurate words like "sometimes," "this time."
  • Write it down. Once your commitment statement is complete, reinforce it by writing it. Now the information gets to travel to your brain via another pathway. It is also something you can look at every day and use as a reminder.
  • Tell someone else: You are more likely to stay on track if someone else knows about your commitment. Utilize your positive friends as role models and sounding boards. They can also confront any exaggeration of "mistakes" into "failures."
  • Do it. Making a change requires overcoming the fear that you won't do it right, or that you might even fail and practicing the change over and over.
  • Reward yourself. When you catch yourself exaggerating, stop and say something more accurate, give yourself a verbal pat on the back, a compliment--and mean it. "Hey, I did it. I'm getting more specific by the minute!" Your brain views sincere compliments as positively as it does a material gift.
  • Be gentle. When you forget and exaggerate--and you will!--be as compassionate with yourself as you would be with a friend. Use the experience as a learning tool. Feel the guilt long enough to own the mistake. Then worry about it long enough to consider how to keep from doing it again. With that, the value of guilt and worry is over. Let them go.
  • Keep on keeping on. Notice, commit, practice, reward, share, and do it again and again. Don't expect to change overnight. Researchers now say that it can take 2-6 months to change a habit. So be patient, keep working, keep rewarding yourself and keep talking about your successes.
Eventually, you will find that you are automatically using more accurate words instead of extreme words. You aren't making conscious choices anymore, it just comes naturally. It's a habit! With that done, you can start over and change another habit.

With each negative thinking habit you change to something more constructive, you will also experience some longer lasting rewards. Every so often, stop and take inventory. Are you happier? Do you feel better? Is your health better? What about your loved one? Is the same true for them? Are there fewer negative behaviors? Are they more content? And finally, own the constructive changes you've made and give yourself lots of credit.

Helen and James Whitworth are not doctors, lawyers or social workers. As informed caregivers, they share the information here for educational purposes only. It should never be used instead of a professional's advice.

We love and welcome comments but we will not publish any that advertise a product or a commercial website. This is especially true for testimonials about miraculous Parkinson's cures and marijuana.

* Acronyms:
AD: Alzheimer's disease
BPSD: Behavioral and psychological symptoms of dementia
DLB: Dementia with Lewy bodies, where cognitive/behavioral issues occur first
LBD: Lewy body dementia, an umbrella term for both DLB and PDD
MCI: Mild cognitive impairment
MCI-LB: the form of MCI that precedes LBD
PD: Parkinson's disease
PDD: Parkinson's disease with dementia, where mobility issues occur first
PlwD: person/people living with dementia
PlwPD, LBD, PDD, AD, etc.: person/people living with PD, LBD, etc.

For more information about Lewy body disorders, read our books:
A Caregivers’ Guide to Lewy Body Dementia
Managing Cognitive Issues in Parkinson's and Lewy Body Dementia

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