How to Stop an Addiction

How to Stop an Addiction

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As an addiction counselor, I’ve spent a lot of time helping people stop an addiction. Although everyone’s recovery is unique, I’ve seen some common themes regarding what allows people to gain freedom from addiction.

In this article, I summarize and integrate all of the best research and therapeutic methods on addiction recovery. It is a comprehensive approach that can be started on your own but may require the support of a professional or peer support group.

Throughout the article, I point to many additional resources, so it might be helpful to save the links or take notes on the resources that fit your situation, so you can explore them later on.

So how do you stop an addiction?

  1. Address the physical addiction
  2. Address the psychological addiction
  3. Ask yourself if it’s worth it
  4. Minimize the need for willpower
  5. Maximize intrinsic motivation

Each of these factors allows you to decrease your reasons to continue an addictive substance or behavior and increase your reasons to change.

While struggling with an addiction, you may find yourself on a motivational seesaw, like the image below. Caught between wanting to continue and wanting to stop, many people experience moments of mixed motivation, feeling pulled in two different directions.

On the one hand, the addictive substance or behavior provides relief of physical or emotional pain, while on the other hand, it keeps you from living in alignment with your values.

My collogue Stephanie describes this battle in the following way:

“Addiction feels like a war in your head. You know what you’re doing is hurting you but can’t stop. It’s like watching a bad movie you are the star of. You want to yell “stop” at the screen, but it does no good.”

People may tell you to “just stop,” but you’ve probably already told yourself that many times. If this approach worked, you would have likely stopped long ago. So what is the alternative?

In my work with clients, I uncover the underlying causes of the addiction, treat these underlying causes, and build motivational momentum.

After years of working with clients one-on-one, I’ve decided to create a summary of my approach, so the lessons can reach a broader audience and help more people who are trying to stop an addiction.

Let’s get started.

Address the Physical Addiction

When talking to a client about stopping an addictive substance, the first thing I consider is the potential physical dependency. In simple terms, this means determining how their body might react in the absence of the substance.

This is particularly relevant for individuals who are using a substance daily. If someone is binging on weekends, they may experience a hangover, but this is different from physical dependency.

Physical dependency occurs when your body adapts to the presence of a substance. Over time, your brain and body start to rely on the substance to feel normal, and abruptly stopping a substance can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

Working in a withdrawal facility as a chemical dependency counselor, I learned a lot about the various factors to consider when assessing and monitoring clients. These general guidelines are intended for educational purposes and I would advise you to seek the support of a medical practitioner for advice on how to proceed.

Here are some things to consider if you have been using a substance daily:

Alcohol/ Depressants

When your body adapts to the presence of alcohol, its ability to stay relaxed on its own decreases. When stopping, it produces a rebound effect whereby you can become highly anxious and physically shakey, perhaps even leading to seizures. Alcohol and other depressants such as benzodiazepines are considered the most dangerous substances to stop for this reason.

For more on this topic, see my article: What to Expect From Alcohol Withdrawal.

Opioids/ Painkillers

These are the most painful substances to withdrawal from. When your body adjusts to being numbed and sedated, stopping the substance produces a rebound effect whereby persons can experience extreme pain, irritability, inability to sleep, in addition to a number of other flu-like symptoms.

For more on this topic, see my article: What Does Opioid Withdrawal Feel Like?

Stimulants

These often come with more mild withdrawal symptoms compared to alcohol and opioids. When your body adjusts to the constant stimulation, stopping produces a rebound effect whereby persons can feel extreme fatigue. This is particularly relevant when stopping crystal meth due to its potency. Although the withdrawal is not necessarily dangerous like alcohol or painful like opioids, it can result in a great deal of fatigue.

You can read more about crystal meth addiction in my article here.

Cannabis

It is difficult to characterize this particular substance since many people don’t experience withdrawal symptoms, while others do. Irritability, difficulty sleeping, or a general sense of malaise may be associated with stopping cannabis.

Main lesson

When stopping any substance, consider the potential physical withdrawal symptoms and seek appropriate medical support or the services of a withdrawal facility.

The main question I ask potential clients to determine their withdrawal risk is whether or not there have been days recently where they have not used the substance. If so, I ask them to describe what those days are like. Since withdrawal symptoms generally set in fairly quickly after stopping a substance, a day of not using the substance usually makes these physical symptoms fairly noticeable.

If the potential client cannot recall a time when there was a gap in their use, I advise them of the above information and to seek support from a medical professional.

If you can go a day or more without using the substance and do not notice significant physical symptoms, it is time to address the psychological aspect of the addiction.

Address the Psychological Addiction

Many people experience psychological addictions without having a physical dependence. If you don’t use a substance daily, or if you struggle with a behavioral addiction like gambling, there may be no physical withdrawal.

The psychological aspect of addiction comes from an attempt to cope with underlying emotional pain such as stress, anxiety, depression, or boredom. The substance or addictive behavior provides temporary relief at a long-term cost to one’s health, relationships, and general wellbeing.

Addictive substances or behaviors are commonly used to cope with unmet needs or past trauma.

Unmet needs commonly include the need for a sense of connection, purpose, and sense of control in one’s life. Past trauma or other adverse experiences can make it even more challenging to meet these needs because it can cause anxiety, mistrust, depression, or cognitive distortions.

Identifying the source of the psychological addiction is generally the goal of my initial sessions with a client. Once we identify the underlying issue, we then focus on treating it.

Since each individual requires a slightly different approach, giving a specific “how to” in this section is difficult, but here are some general things to consider.

Developing Self-Compassion

This is one of the most common areas I continually focus on. Since there is a stigma around addiction, people often internalize unhelpful self-critical thoughts about themselves.

Throughout your day, notice how often you have thoughts like, “I’m stupid, I’m incompetent, I’m worthless, I’m unworthy, I’m a burden, I’m broken, I’m unlovable, or I’m not enough.” This is just a quick summary of the most common ones I hear on a daily basis in my work with clients. If your mind frequently goes to one or many of these places, you are not alone.

Many of the people who struggle with these thoughts are often the most compassionate people in their interactions with others. Drawing on this natural strength, here is an exercise to develop self-compassion:

Imagine a time you’ve struggled with these unhelpful self-critical thoughts about yourself. What was the specific situation? Where were you? When did it happen? What self-critical thoughts came up? If you have a moment, take some time to imagine yourself in this situation.

Now consider someone in your life who you care for. Who is this person? Imagine they come to you describing the same situation you described above, saying the same self-critical thoughts about themselves. How would you respond to that person? What kind words might you offer them?

Now, look back at yourself struggling in that situation. Imagine looking at yourself in that moment of struggling. Notice the pain on your face or the invisible pain underneath. Imagine you could walk up to yourself at that moment. What kind words might you offer yourself?

Would if you could talk to yourself like the person you care about? How might this be a more helpful way of talking to yourself when you face difficult situations in the future?

If self-criticism and lack of self-kindness is a major theme for you, I’d recommend checking out Self-Compassion by Kristen Neff, PhD, for more on this topic.

Noticing Unhelpful Thinking Styles

Another common approach to addiction treatment is cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT). Beyond just noticing self-criticism, CBT allows you to see how your thoughts about the world create your experience of reality.

I’ve listed some of the most common ones in the following chart:

Which one of these unhelpful thinking styles particularity stands out to you? Can you imagine a specific situation where this type of thinking dominated your reality? What particular thoughts were going through your mind at the time? Now that you consider the facts about the situation, how realistic was your perception at the time?

A common scenario includes thoughts about why someone didn’t text you back. Can you recall a time someone didn’t text you back? What kinds of unhelpful thoughts did you have about the situation? Did you jump to conclusions about the other person’s motives? What is a more realistic way of looking at the situation?

As you become more aware of these unhelpful thinking styles in your everyday life, it changes your experience of yourself and the world. Being able to step back and take a more realistic perspective can be a helpful way to reduce anxiety and depression since your thoughts affect your emotions.

If you are interested in learning more about this approach, I recommend the book, Feeling Good by David Burns MD.

Practicing Acceptance

In 12-step recovery, a common phrase is to “accept what you cannot control.” This comes from the Serenity Prayer, which I’ve written more about here.

Do you find yourself spending a lot of time and energy on things you cannot control? This might mean worrying about things in the future, dwelling on things that have already happened, or trying to control others who don’t want to be controlled.

With all the mental energy spent on these things, the overthinking problem-solving mind runs on overdrive. Many people turn to substances to get out of their head or turn off their brain.

Practicing acceptance is a way to ease off the mental gas pedal and stop trying to gain a sense of certainty in uncertain situations beyond one’s control.

One way to do this is to practice using the phrase, “maybe yes, maybe no,” when your mind tries to answer an unanswerable question. Another practical exercise is the leaves on a stream guided meditation that can be found here.

These techniques are taken from my primary therapeutic modality, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). I’ve written a comprehensive summary of this technique here.

If you are interested in reading more about this approach, I recommend checking out Act Made Simple by Russ Harris MD.

Although I point to various self-help tools in this article, the best way to optimize your chance of a successful recovery is through the support of others.

Addiction thrives in isolation and recovery brings us back into connection with ourselves and others.

If you want support overcoming the psychological aspects of an addiction, I recommend connecting with a professional in the field.

If you are located in Canada, I offer virtual addiction counseling. You can reach out to me here for a free phone consultation.

If you are looking for a specialist anywhere in the world, I recommend using the Psychology Today therapist directory here. You can filter practitioners by their location, specialty, and types of insurance coverage. Also, many offer a free phone consultation, so you can talk to a few different practitioners before committing.

If you are looking for a flexible, inexpensive virtual option, you can check out Better Help here. Although they don’t accept insurance, they have low costs, high accessibility through their mobile app, and the ability to switch counselors quickly and easily until you find the right fit.

As always, it is important to be critical when seeking help since the quality of counselors is not consistent.

Since the quality of the therapeutic relationship is critical, I recommend seeking out another practitioner if you are not feeling supported. I wrote an article on things to consider when seeking therapy here.

Ask Yourself If It’s Worth It

Addictions are an attempt to solve a problem. The substance or addictive behavior solves the problem in the short term, causing even more problems in the longer term.

Although this may be true in the earlier stages of an addiction, many people start to realize the addiction doesn’t even adequately solve the short-term problem anymore. In fact, they may even begin to dislike the experience of it.

For example, walking through a casino, you’ll often realize many people are not necessarily having fun. I’ve heard similar experiences with substances as well. When the thrill wears off and the usage becomes habitual, the experience can become generally unrewarding.

Tipping the motivational scale away from the addiction requires bringing your attention to the experience of the addiction. Bring your attention to the work involved in maintaining the addiction. Notice the effort required to incorporate it into your life. Perhaps you have to hide certain things, plan around it, or think about it constantly. When I talk to clients about this, I often find myself saying, “wow… that sounds stressful!”

Next time you use your drug of choice, bring some mindful awareness to the experience. Is this worth it? Is this experience worth all of the work? Is it worth all of the damage? Without needing to engage in self-judgment, simply bring mindful attention to whether it’s worth it.

One of the best series of books on this area of motivation is Alan Carr’s Easyway. After seeing the power of his approach, I often recommend the audiobook versions of his texts to my clients to listen to while driving or cleaning. His books have a way of making the addictive substance or behavior seem highly unappealing by the end of the book.

Although he does not have a book for every substance, here are a few options:

The Easy Way to Stop Smoking

The Easy Way to Control Alcohol

The Easy Way to Stop Gambling

The Easy Way to Stop Smartphone Addiction

The Easy Way to Stop Emotional Eating

I recommend reading only one of his books since each is a variation on the same approach. Also, he can take a while to get into the main content and repeats himself a lot. With this in mind, I highly recommend checking out his approach because it is quite powerful and has changed millions of lives.

Minimize the Need for Willpower

Willpower is overrated.

If you’ve tried to stop an addiction, many people have likely said, “you just need more willpower.” You’ve probably even told yourself, “I just don’t have enough willpower.”

As an addiction counselor, I don’t talk about willpower a lot because it is one of the weakest forms of motivation.

In the recovery community, relying on willpower is often referred to as “white-knuckling it.” You can even visualize what this feels like. It’s the sense of constant withholding, restricting, and inner tension.

Willpower is overrated because it is temporary. When it is the only tool, you’ll be able to abstain for a period of time, but you’ll likely go back to the substance or addictive behavior, perhaps even more than before.

For example, food becomes even more appealing when you’re on a diet. Like a dieter sitting next to a buffet, willpower steadily depletes, and binging becomes more likely.

Willpower can be used to get you through a difficult moment, but there needs to be a broader plan.

When discussing this area of recovery with clients, I often look at three major triggers: persons, places, and things.

The least risky way of proceeding is to radically change all of these areas. This could mean you stop spending time with people involved in the substance, avoid places where you use the substance, and remove the substance from your immediate surroundings.

Although completely cutting out all triggers is the safest way, it’s sometimes not practical and necessary for all persons. This is something I collaborate on with each client, based on their situation.

Planning for triggering moments is also a way to minimize the need for willpower. For example, if you are planning on attending a wedding but want to abstain from alcohol, it would be helpful to imagine how the day might go. Play the potential night like a movie in your head. Where will you be? Who will be around you? What will you be drinking instead? What would you want to say if someone offered you a drink?

Planning for these moments allows you to operate based on a mental template rather than having to make moment-to-moment decisions while in highly triggering environments. Having to make frequent decisions is a major factor in willpower depletion. Planning simplifies the process so you can focus on what matters instead.

If you want to read the best book on this topic, I recommend Willpower by Roy Baumeister PhD.

Maximize Intrinsic Motivation

Intrinsic motivation is composed of three main ingredients according to self-determination theory:

  1. Autonomy (sense of control)
  2. Competence (sense of progress)
  3. Relatedness (sense of belonging)

Gaining a sense of control

The best way to start gaining a sense of control is to consider what you want and start taking small actions toward it.

Many people get used to operating on autopilot based on a series of “shoulds” and social expectations. In my work with clients, I often point out when someone is using a “should” statement, asking them if this is something they “want.” “Shoulds” take away our sense of control, whereas “wants” empower us.

In addition to uncovering genuine desires, I do quite a bit of values exploration with clients. By clarifying core values, you gain a sense of direction and purpose, knowing you are operating based on principles that are important to you. Like a compass, it does not give you complete control over the journey, but it does give you a sense of control over the direction.

Gaining a sense of progress

This is the sense that you are progressing in a skill or progressing toward a goal. If values are the compass, goals are destinations along the path. Rather than focusing on one large goal, it is helpful to break it into several smaller goals. This allows you to gain more frequent motivational rewards along the way.

In my work with clients, I often break down goals into small commitments. We look at small things they can do today or tomorrow, making it easy to begin the change process.

Consider small things you can do today. In the recovery community, they often say, “one day at a time.” This makes the change process less overwhelming. If focusing on one day at a time is too much, you can even consider using the phrase, “one moment at a time.” The only question you need to ask yourself is, “What is the next thing I want to do?”

Another important aspect of gaining a sense of progress is recognizing when you’ve stuck to your commitments. I frequently point this out to clients, providing validation that they stuck to their commitments. I often zoom out, recalling the recent past and offering perspective on how far they have come.

In short, make the process into a series of small tasks and take the time to appreciate small wins along the way.

Gaining a sense of belonging

As a former sociologist, I have a significant interest in the power of social connection. I’ve written about my passion for the study of social connection here and the impact of isolation on addiction here.

As shared in that article, addiction is fundamentally rooted in social disconnection.

Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, recognizes this in the statement:

“We consider addiction a disease of isolation…”

Johann Hari echos this sentiment:

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is human connection.”

Bruce Alexander is also a major advocate for this perspective with his famous Rat Park Study.

If you leave the rat with drug-infused water and regular water, the rat will continue taking the drug until it overdoses.

The rat park study did the same experiment but took the rat out of isolation, putting it into rat park, a large rat amusement park with the company of several other rats.

Rather than overdosing on the drug-infused water, the rats in rat park moderated their consumption, balancing it with the regular water.

Although there has been some debate regarding the replicability of this experiment, it demonstrates the power of social connection to treat and prevent addiction.

12-step recovery and other peer-support groups can be huge catalysts to social connection. 12-step groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and Narcotics Anonymous (NA) are free and widely available. They build social support into the program by encouraging members to get a “sponsor”—a mentor who has been through the steps and can provide support and guidance in your recovery.

If you’re interested in accessing virtual peer support, you can check out In The Rooms. They offer a wide range of virtual peer-support meetings on various specialized areas of addiction.

Local AA meetings can be found here.

Local NA meetings can be found here.

Local Gamblers Anonymous (GA) meetings can be found here.

If you are interested in trying a non-12-step form of peer support, I recommend checking out Smart Recovery. You can find local meetings here.

Many people with an addiction feel alone in their struggle. They may feel like they are the only one going through it, blaming themselves for not being able to stop.

The shame of self-stigma adds to the sense of isolation, making it even more challenging to recover. If this article resonates with you, just know that you are not alone. There are millions of individuals going through different situations with similar themes.

Connecting with a peer support group is a great way to gain a sense of connection and improve the chances of long-term recovery.

Conclusion

If you or someone you love is trying to stop an addiction, I hope this brief guide can help.

In short, it is important to first address any potential physical addiction with a medical practitioner or withdrawal facility. Next, the psychological addiction needs to be addressed by getting support for unprocessed trauma, adverse experiences, anxious thoughts, or unmet psychological needs. Addressing these physical and mental factors reduces the underlying pain.

In addition to minimizing the underlying pain, it is also important to maximize one’s motivation by clarifying one’s reasons to change and making incremental progress with the support of others.

By minimizing the underlying pain and maximizing the reasons to change, long-term recovery is possible and quite common.

Although the majority of people do recover from an addiction, it often takes a few tries. It gets easier over time, but it still requires ongoing attention. Like beginning an exercise routine, it can feel uncomfortable at first, but you build motivational momentum over time.

This guide is a general framework of the areas I consider while helping clients, but each individual’s recovery may look different. This is not meant to be a one-size-fits-all guide to recovery. Instead, it is intended to highlight specific areas that might be relevant for you, pointing you to further resources for more information or support.

If you want even more information on specific issues related to addiction, I’ve written over ninety articles here.

Here are a few of my favorites:

How to Find Motivation

Underlying Causes of Addiction

How to Heal From Emotionally Unavailable Parents

How to Stop Overthinking and Start Living

How To Heal Your Relationship With Food

7 Ways to Stop Gambling and Save Money

Why We Are Addicted To Social Media: The Psychology of Likes

Have a question? Feel free to reach out to me here:

Online Gambling Addiction: A Growing Problem

Online Gambling Addiction: A Growing Problem

On the go? You can listen to the audio version of this article here:

Since the pandemic began, there has been an explosion of online gambling. With experts warning of this “ticking time bomb,” responsible gambling safeguards are sparse. 

According to a report by the Responsible Gambling Council (RGC), one-third of persons who gamble online said the lockdowns influenced this decision. 

Although online gambling has been gaining popularity over the last two decades, the pandemic accelerated demand, leading to higher rates of riskier gambling.  

RGC’s report found online gambling is correlated with moderate and high-risk gambling. 

%

Overall high-risk gambling

%

High-risk gambling online

Due to the ease of access, the online platforms make it easier to use gambling as a way to cope with underlying issues such as anxiety and depression.

RGC’s survey found that anxiety and depression are major factors contributing to high-risk gambling. As shown below, persons with severe depression are almost five times more likely to engage in high-risk gambling. 

%

High-risk gambling with lower levels of depression

%

High-Risk gambling with severe depression

Typical depression symptoms such as low mood, apathy, and social isolation are a barrier to accessing in-person venues. With online gambling, persons with severe depression can maintain round the clock access to gambling while in the comfort of their own home.

RGC’s survey found that gambling to cope with depressed moods was a significant risk-factor for problematic gambling:

“…67.6% of those who gambled online because it helps when feeling nervous or depressed were high-risk gamblers. [They have] 7.4-times the risk of problematic gambling, relative to other gambling motives.” 

To give a personal face to the RGC statistics, I interviewed Kira who shared her experience of addiction and recovery from online gambling addiction.

Kira’s Story of Online Gambling Addiction

When she turned eighteen, Kira started going to bingo events with friends. Grieving the loss of her aunt’s passing, gambling allowed her to get out of the house and take her mind off the grief.

What started as a source of entertainment turned into a way to escape. Turning to online slots, she could gamble on her phone whenever she wished. Over time, she accumulated debt, locking her into the downward spiral of trying to win back the money she had spent.

Isolating herself, lacking self-care, hygiene, and motivation, she went through seven different jobs, unable to feel settled. Coping with depression, she fell deeper into online gambling to avoid the painful reality.

“I was able to isolate at home. I had the freedom to just pick up my phone and there I was logged in depositing money. I wouldn’t have had the energy or courage to get showered, dressed and walked to the casino.”

Kira gambled alone, losing herself in the glow of her phone. She was withdrawn, often disappearing into the bathroom or her bedroom to gamble.

Spending so much time isolating herself with her phone, her partner began to accuse her of cheating. Although he knew she gambled, he did not know she had lost control and was accumulating debt. 

Her gambling escalated when she had her son in May 2020. Due to COVID-19, she was laid off from work, receiving a lump sum of money from her employer, in addition to a sum of money for her maternity benefits. 

The pandemic, a newborn, and a chunk of money in her bank account was a recipe for disaster. With her son sleeping on her chest, Kira laid awake with anticipation as the colors and lights flashed on her phone, hinting at her next win. 

Spending all of the extra money before her son turned two months, she was forced to find work. 

At this point, Kira made her first suicide attempt by overdosing on anti-depressants and painkillers. Throughout the next six months, she attempted suicide two more times this way, preparing a list of her creditors for someone to call saying she’d passed.

After her second suicide attempt in the Fall, Kira finally admitted she had an issue and told her partner. Although she wanted to stop, she found herself continuing to gamble, spending all of the money she saved for her son and partner’s Christmas presents.

Tired of living in a state of constant anxiety and seeing the look of despair on her partner’s face, she decided to face the issue head-on and stop gambling before she lost everything, including her life. 

Finding an online Facebook group for persons recovering from gambling addiction, Kira gained the type of support she needed, crediting the online group for her past seven months of abstinence from gambling. 

“Luckily for me, I got out before it ruined my life, but I have met and know so many people it has destroyed, and they have lost everything.”

Gambling to cope with underlying pain results in short-term relief at a long-term cost. Like substances, this addiction can have profound effects on the lives of users. Unlike substances, online gambling addiction is largely invisible, allowing around-the-clock instant access. 

If you want to reach out to Kira, you can contact her on Facebook here.

Risky Gambling Motivations

RGC’s survey indicated several risky gambling motivations. I have created the following infographic to depict some of these risky motivations. If you want to read their full report, you can check it out here

Learn More About Gambling Addiction 

How does gambling addiction work?

Gambling addiction works by hijacking the brain’s learning mechanism through random rewards. To learn more, check out my article: How Does Gambling Addiction Work.

How do you stop gambling?

1) Let go of common gambling fallacies
2) Decide if gambling is really worth it
3) Self-exclude or use a gambling blocker
4) Replace gambling with other activities
5) Identify your gambling triggers
6) Uncover what’s driving your gambling
7) Seek gambling-specific counseling

To learn more, check out my article: 7 Ways to Stop Gambling and Save Money

When does something become an addiction?

Something becomes an addiction if it begins to have significant harmful impacts on other areas of your life. To learn more, see my article: When Does Something Become an Addiction

How do you prevent a gambling addiction?

Preventing a gambling addiction requires playing for entertainment rather than using it to make money:

1) Set a money limit before gambling
2) Set a time limit on your gambling
3) Play for entertainment rather than making money
4) Understand how the games work.

To learn more, check out my article: How to Prevent a Gambling Addiction

Have a question?

Ask Steve

Steve Rose, PhD, is a Certified Gambling Counsellor (CCPC Global) and Problem Gambling Prevention Specialist. 

How To Motivate Someone

How To Motivate Someone

On the go? Listen to the audio version of this article here:

Trying to motivate someone can be frustrating. If you’ve tried to encourage someone through incentives, punishment, or advice, you may have noticed how these methods often don’t work.

Incentives and punishment often don’t work in the long-term because they reduce someone’s sense of intrinsic motivation. Advice often doesn’t work because it takes away a person’s sense of control over the situation.

So if these most commonly used approaches don’t work, how do you motivate someone?

  1. Inquire into the benefits of their current approach 
  2. Explore the drawbacks of their current approach
  3. Explore their desires, values, and strengths
  4. Collaborate on small, specific, practical goals

As an addiction counselor, my primary job is to help people gain motivation to change. Working in this field, I’ve learned you can’t make people change. You can only create the optimal conditions for change. The rest relies on their openness and commitment.

Although the techniques I share are based on therapeutic best practices in addiction counseling, the lessons are transferable to many other areas. For example, this approach is effective for motivating an employee, motivating a son/ daughter, or motivating a friend who is looking to make some changes in their life.

Let’s explore what each of these steps entails and how you can use them in your interactions.

Inquire into the benefits of their current approach

As I shared in my previous article on how to find motivation, we tend to emphasize change without giving enough thought to what is motivating someone to stay the same. This is like revving a boat’s engine while neglecting to pull up the anchor.

Although it is tempting to believe some people lack motivation, this is far from true. Someone can lack the motivation to do something you want them to do, but they have a great deal of motivation to keep doing what they are doing.

For example, a teenager may appear to lack motivation to do household chores but has a lot of motivation to engage with friends on social media.

An employee may lack the motivation to adapt to changes within a company but has a lot of motivation to continue doing it their own way.

Lastly, a person with an addiction may lack the motivation to get help but has a lot of motivation to find the substance and conceal their usage.

Whatever their current motivation, there is some perceived benefit associated with it, even if it doesn’t make sense to you.

When talking to a new client, I usually like to start by exploring these underlying benefits. Without doing this, you’re merely trying to rev the metaphorical boat engine while ignoring the anchor in the water.

Also, by exploring their current motivation, you begin with a collaborative, engaging, non-confrontational dynamic. Consider how you would feel if someone asked, “why don’t you want to change?” vs. “what benefits are you getting from your current approach?”

The key is to inquire about these benefits in a state of genuine curiosity. Asking sarcastically or being closed to the idea of potential benefits would likely backfire, leading to further disengagement.

One way to put yourself in a productive mindset is to imagine you are a researcher studying human behavior. Before having the conversation, consider the fact that people are often driven by invisible internal forces. Get curious about potential forces driving this particular person. You can generate a few hypotheses, but you never truly know until you ask.

Once you are in an open state of mind and ready to have the conversation, it might be helpful to preface your inquiry with some kind of observation.

For example, “I noticed you’ve been doing ________.” Whatever facts you use to fill in the blank, the key is that it is non-judgmental and objectively observable.

You can then transition into inquiring into the benefits of their current behavior by using the phrase, “I’m wondering,” followed by something like, “…what you’ve been getting from this particular approach,” or “…how this has been beneficial for you.”

Feel free to tailor the language to fit your communication style or the particular situation. The key is that you approach the person in an open, non-judgmental, and curious way. Then, simply listen.

Useful communication techniques for this particular aspect of the conversation consist of open-ended questions (questions generally starting with “what”), words signifying curiosity (“wondering”), and active listening (briefly summarizing their statements in your own words).

Explore the drawbacks of their current approach

Once you’ve built rapport and engagement by demonstrating you understand their current motivations, you can inquire into the perceived drawbacks of their current approach.

Asking about the drawbacks without first establishing trust and rapport can backfire since the person will not feel understood and perceive this question as an attempt to change them.

As Peter Sange says:

“People don’t resist change. They resist being changed.”

The key to this part of the conversation is to maintain the spirit of non-judgmental curiosity, having them explore their own perceived drawbacks rather than imposing your thoughts on the situation.

Potential questions might include, “what are some drawbacks of this approach?” and “What have you been finding difficult about this approach?” or the statement, “I’m wondering what aspects of this approach you might be struggling with right now.”

Whatever the phrasing, it needs to fit the situation and fit your natural communication style.

Useful communication techniques for this part of the conversation include open-ended questions about the drawbacks and actively listening to their responses, demonstrating your curiosity and genuine understanding of their perspective.

Explore their desires, values, and strengths

After discussing the benefits and costs of their current approach, you can transition into what they want and why they want it.

Many people find themselves merely going through the motions on a daily basis, focused on what they “should” or “shouldn’t” do, paying little attention to what thay “want” or “don’t want”.

I often transition into this question by summarizing the conversation up to this point, then asking what they want. For example, “It sounds like you’re getting x, y, and z out of your current approach, while leading to x, y, and z difficulties… so what is it you want?”

In a text format, this question looks confrontational, but in person, I would deliver it with a spirit of curiosity and genuineness.

If the answer is, “I don’t know,” I would explore potential aspirations, hobbies, or interests. If the person shares things they think they “should” want, I would ask the question again, saying, “and what do you want?”

Once you have some information on what the other person wants, it’s also important to clarify their why. Getting clear on their reasons for wanting a particular thing builds intrinsic motivation. This form of motivation consists of an internal desire or passion. It is the opposite of extrinsic motivation, which consists of rewards such as praise or money.

Intrinsic motivation is powerful and long-lasting, whereas extrinsic motivation is short-lived. For more on the distinction between these two types of motivation, see my article on how motivation works.

Useful communication techniques for this aspect of the conversation include open-ended questions about aspirations and holding space for them to share.

Holding space requires creating a safe, non-judgmental, compassionate environment where you are there for the other person, letting go of the need to control or “fix” them. For more on the concept of holding space, there is a great article on the topic here.

Collaborate on small, specific, practical goals

It can be tempting to tell the other person your opinion, giving them the solution. To you, the solution may look simple, but to the individual experiencing it, this is far from reality. Merely offering your well-intentioned advice can often backfire, making the person feel less motivated.

As The Growlers state in their song on this topic:

“There’s nothing as depressing as good advice… Nobody wants to hear how to live their life.”

People often react to feeling controlled by doing the opposite. Since we strive for a sense of control, rebelling against attempts to control our behavior is an attempt to meet this need.

A collaborative approach to change avoids this issue, increasing their sense of control over the process, building intrinsic motivation.

Collaborating with someone means avoiding these common traps:

  1. Talking down to them and making them feel inferior
  2. Treating them as a problem to be solved
  3. Talking more than listening
  4. Interrupting them
  5. Telling them what to do
  6. Trying harder than them

If you feel like you are working harder than the other person, you may be taking too much control, reducing their intrinsic motivation.

Maintaining a collaborative approach when planning for change requires asking questions such as, “what are the potential next steps?” or “how do you think we can move forward with this?”

When planning for the next steps, it is important to focus on small, specific, practical goals. Although it is tempting to focus on big changes, this generally sets someone up to feel less motivated.

Big changes can appear intimidating and lead to procrastination.

A focus on big changes also mitigates the motivating force of frequent small rewards.

If the person requires some assistance in planning for the next steps, it may be appropriate to share your thoughts on potential options. To get around the issue regarding unsolicited advice, it can be helpful to ask permission before sharing your thoughts.

This might sound something like, “Can I offer some suggestions?” or “I’m wondering if I can offer some potential resources.”

While giving suggestions or resources, it is helpful to avoid using the word “should” or “must”. These words often cause well-intentioned advice to backfire by creating a perceived loss of control.

After sharing suggestions or resources, you can further engage the person by asking their thoughts about the information you’ve shared. For example, I often simply say, “what are your thoughts?” or “what do you think about these options?”

By asking the person’s thoughts, you give them a sense of control and figure out the most appropriate next steps. Ultimately, they need to choose to take the steps, so having them make the choice increases the odds they will take action.

Helpful communication techniques for this aspect of the conversation include:

  • Open-ended questions about the next steps.
  • Actively listening to potential options.
  • Asking for permission before providing suggestions.
  • Avoiding “should/ must” statements.
  • Asking their thoughts about your suggestions.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has allowed you to gain some practical tools to help you motivate someone. Although these are lessons I’ve learned from addiction counseling, they are also applicable for leaders in the workplace, parents concerned about their children, or helping a friend who is trying to make some changes in their life.

If you work in sales, customer service, or in a leadership position, you may have already come across many of the principles in this article. If so, consider how you can draw upon your own past experiences.

Many people don’t realize they already have expertise in motivating others since so many professional environments operate based on these principles.

Consider the areas you’ve already developed these skills and how those lessons may fit with the techniques presented here.

If you want to learn more about finding motivation or want to share a practical resource with someone you are helping, check out my article on How to Find Motivation.

If you’re interested in a more advanced philosophical deep-dive into motivation, I highly recommend the book How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t) by Ross Ellenhorn.

There are many powerful insights in this book, and you can even listen to the audiobook version for free if you haven’t yet signed up for Audible’s trial.

If you’re a mental health or addiction professional, you may recognize this article is a basic summary of Motivational Interviewing, a treatment modality initially developed for the addiction field.

For a more advanced explanation of this technique, see my article on How to Do Motivational Interviewing.

If you’re a mental health practitioner, I’ve also written an article on a powerful motivational technique called “creative hopelessness” from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) here.

As always, I am looking for your feedback, so I can continue to refine these ideas in future content.

How to Find Motivation

How to Find Motivation

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For many people, it’s challenging to find motivation. After a long day, it’s hard to find the energy to go to the gym, study, cook, or clean. Or maybe you’re looking to start that hobby you’ve been putting off.

Perhaps you are looking to make some significant changes to your daily habits, such as stopping an addictive substance or behavior, facing your anxiety, or overcoming depression.

Whatever your goal, it’s essential to develop a strong sense of motivation to propel long-term change.

As an addiction counselor, I’ve carefully studied how to increase motivation. Although many of the techniques I use require dialogue in a counseling context, I’ve summarized some of the core lessons to help you find motivation:

  1. Inquire into what is preventing you from acting
  2. Meet your unmet needs 
  3. Clarify your values and strengths
  4. Build momentum through small actions

Let’s delve into each of these four areas and look at how you can apply these lessons to increase your motivation to change.

Inquire into what is preventing you from acting

We tend to emphasize change without giving enough thought to what is motivating us to stay the same. It’s like revving the engine on a boat while ignoring the anchor in the water. You wouldn’t blame the engine for not having enough power; you’d just pull up the anchor and try again.

This is the problem with willpower. It’s not enough to sustain long-term change. If you’ve ever made a new years resolution and broke it a week later, you’ve likely chalked it up to a lack of willpower.

In the addiction field, this way of changing is often referred to as “white-knuckling.” It means you are just holding on tight and hoping for the best, feeling heavily deprived and not dealing with underlying issues.

Willpower alone can get you through a difficult moment, but like running a boat full-throttle with the anchor down, it’s not a sustainable long-term way to maintain motivation.

When you fully appreciate what is holding you back, you can start making changes; otherwise, the anchor operates unconsciously in the background, sabotaging your motivation.

If you want to explore the metaphorical anchor, here is a simple exercise from the field of motivational interviewing called a decisional balance.

Consider the following questions carefully:

What are the benefits of not changing?

Consider what you gain by not changing your behavior. Perhaps there is a level of comfort, security, certainty, familiarity, or other benefit associated with your current approach. Perhaps it’s easier to keep your expectations lower, so you don’t risk disappointment or embarrassment if it does not work out. Whatever your reason, take it seriously as a reasonable option that makes sense.

What are the drawbacks of changing?

Consider the current benefits you’ll have to give up if you decide to change. In addition, consider the additional challenges you’ll be required to face if you choose to change. Maybe you’ll have to experience fear, uncertainty, boredom, or disappointment if the change does not bring the result you expect.

What are the drawbacks of not changing?

Now consider the disadvantages of continuing with your current situation. Perhaps you will experience dissatisfaction, miss out on something, not meet a deadline, or some other form of consequence to your health or well-being. If things continue this way, what is a realistic long-term result?

What are the benefits of changing?

Lastly, consider what you could potentially gain from making this change. Perhaps you will experience more joy, purpose, meet an important deadline, or gain improvements in your mental/ physical health. If you make this change, what long-term benefits might you gain?

Approaching change by considering the whole picture allows you to gain a self-compassionate perspective. Rather than beating yourself up for not changing, you can compassionately understand why you may have been choosing not to change despite the potential benefits of change.

Approaching change in this way also allows you to gain a realistic perspective of the costs and benefits of changing, allowing you to gain further motivation if benefits significantly outweigh the costs.

Meet your unmet needs 

If you struggle to find motivation, there may also be an underlying unmet need. Unmet needs are another version of the anchor holding you back.

Unmet needs can be physical, psychological, or social. Let’s consider each area in further detail.

Meet your physical needs

Motivation suffers significantly when physical needs are not met. Consider how you feel when you’re underslept, hungry, too cold, too hot, ill, tense, or in an uncomfortable chair.

A popular acronym in 12-step recovery is HALT, which stands for hungry, angry, lonely, tired. These are some of the most common underlying issues preventing you from functioning optimally. If you’re feeling unmotivated, HALT before going forward because you might have a big anchor in the water.

Bring your awareness to your body and notice what it might be needing. If you notice an unmet physical need, you can tend to it. If you’re unable to meet that physical need right now, such as rest, you can have compassion for your current situation and recognize that’s just the way it is “right now”.

In the long-term, focusing on meeting more of your needs allows you to function with more energy, a clearer mind, more patience, and more overall motivation.

Meet your psychological needs

One of our basic psychological needs consists of a sense of autonomy.

In simple terms, autonomy means we need to feel like we have a sense of freedom and control in our lives. If you feel overly constrained, consider ways to gain back a sense of freedom and control.

For example, if you are trying to gain motivation to eat healthily and exercise, you can take control over the process rather than feeling constrained by the rigid rules imposed by diet culture.

This can mean adding an element of play to whatever you intend on doing. Rather than following rigid rules consisting of what you think you “should” be doing, find a way to put your own personality into it.

When it comes to diet and exercise, this could mean engaging in things you genuinely find fun or interesting and getting creative with different recipes.

If you struggle with yo-yo dieting and a lack of motivation to exercise, I highly recommend checking out my article on how to heal your relationship with food. In that article, I share insights from my time as a personal trainer and my Master’s thesis on problematic media depictions of weight loss.

Meet your social needs

Trained as a sociologist, the power of social connection has been one of my biggest passions.

Social isolation is a significant factor when it comes to motivation. Although we understand the importance of social connection for mental health, we often neglect its role in motivation.

If you feel lonely, isolated, or ashamed, it’s challenging to find motivation. We are social beings. Just as plants need water to thrive, we need a sense of social connection.

If you notice you have been feeling isolated, reaching out and connecting with others allows you to gain a sense of connection and social support. This is one of the major reasons why 12-step groups have been so powerful for persons with addiction.

For more on this topic, check out my article on the impact of isolation on addiction.

Clarify your values and strengths

Many people go through life feeling like they are sleepwalking, just going through the motions.

On a macro level, you may feel compelled to follow the standard middle-class life template of career, marriage, house, kids, promotions, retirement. On a micro level, you may feel compelled to keep showing up to the same job and doing the same things because it’s familiar, and you can’t really see any other options right now.

This situation reminds me of a great line from a song by Metric:

“Buy this car to drive to work. Drive to work to pay for this car.”

Just following orders and going through the motions without emotion can be highly unfulfilling. This lack of fulfillment creates an existential void. We then try to fill this void with entertainment, substances, or material things, but they only provide a temporary distraction from the underlying sense that something is missing.

Let’s take a look at how to escape this “never enough” situation and step off the hedonic treadmill.

Focus on ‘being’, not ‘having’

In our Instagram-obsessed consumer culture, we try to fill the void by having the picturesque image of success and having the most followers. Some people try to have the best vacations so they can get the best photos and get the most likes.

With all of our focus on having, we forget about being. We forget what it means to be present, be in genuine connection, and living in alignment with our deeper values.

The great psychoanalyst, Erich Fromm, talked about this distinction in his book, To Have or to Be? where he states:

“If I am what I have and if what I have is lost, who then am I? Nobody but a defeated, deflated, pathetic testimony to a wrong way of living.”

The antidote to this unfulfilling way of being is to let go of the need to constantly compare oneself to others.

The need to compare ourselves to others comes from a desire to belong. By having more stuff, we feel like we’ll gain acceptance. In reality, this attempt to gain acceptance by climbing the social pyramid merely creates a further sense of disconnection from others.

As previously discussed, this sense of social disconnection depletes long-term motivation and fuels short-term coping strategies such as an addiction to social media. For more on this topic, see my article on why we are addicted to social media.

Prioritize ‘why, not ‘how’

Another benefit of uncovering your core values is that it gives you a “why,” which provides a sense of purpose.

So much of the current self-help content is focused on “how” to do something without first addressing the “why”. We want the quick fix of “three simple tips to the perfect life” without having to delve into what is driving us to seek change.

Focusing all of our attention on the “how” is another reason why change is often so short-lived. When I tell people I was a personal trainer, the first question is usually about how to eat or how to exercise. I’m always super cautious not to simply give someone a “how”. Merely giving someone a perfectly optimized workout plan is likely going to result in a new-years-resolution-style of motivation.

Rather than setting someone up for motivational failure, I like to start by inquiring into their reasons for making this change.

In his classic book, Man’s Search for Meaning, Victor Frankl recites a quote by Friedrich Nietzsche:

“Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

This means having a compelling sense of why we are doing something motivates us to figure out how to overcome the obstacles.

Victor Frankl’s profound sense of purpose motivated him to continue striving when faced with forced labor in multiple Nazi concentration camps. Surviving these camps, he lived to publish his psychological insights and develop logotherapy, a therapeutic approach designed to facilitate a sense of meaning in life.

By clarifying your why, you can operate based on intrinsic motivation rather than extrinsic motivation. In simple terms, it means you’re doing something because you genuinely want to, rather than feeling compelled by an external reward or punishment.

Intrinsic motivation is powerful and long-lasting, whereas extrinsic motivation is short-lived. For more on the distinction between these two types of motivation, see my article on how motivation works.

Recall past strengths and abilities 

One of the most important aspects of motivation is your confidence in your ability to overcome an obstacle in a particular context. The psychological term for this is self-efficacy.

Distinct from your overall self-confidence, your self-efficacy varies depending on your sense of mastery over a particular type of task. For example, you may have high self-efficacy when troubleshooting problems at work but low self-efficacy when dealing with interpersonal conflicts at home, or vice versa.

When talking to clients about change, I like to inquire about their strengths by asking about their employment, education, hobbies, or interests, in addition to noticing other times they have been able to overcome a difficult task.

Validating strengths and past accomplishments is a powerful way to instill self-efficacy. By recalling these things, you build a sense of control over your current situation.

It can be challenging to validate our own strengths since we are often our own worst critics. If you are not currently engaged in ongoing counseling, here is a way to get yourself outside your head and uncover some content to help you build self-efficacy.

Think of someone you trust, such as a parent, a partner, a friend, a family member, a colleague, or a manager. If there is someone you trust in more than one of these areas, consider trying the exercise with a few different people.

Now imagine I asked this person about your strengths. What would they say? What stories might they share regarding your past ability to overcome difficult situations? What personal characteristics would they point out (e.g., loving, determined, resourceful, creative, analytical, etc.)?

If you’re comfortable, you can even directly ask them these questions.

Once you’ve contemplated this area, consider how you can draw upon these past strengths and abilities in your current situation.

Build momentum through small actions

Beyond contemplation of one’s strengths and abilities, self-efficacy is built in practice by seeing evidence of own abilities.

Consider things you have already completed. What steps have you already taken toward your goals? If you haven’t taken any direct steps, are there any indirect things you may have done in preparation to take action?

If you have not yet taken any actions, consider one small thing you can do today or tomorrow that would likely get you slightly closer to your goal.

By completing a task, you get the reward of a small win. Getting this small win increases your motivation to complete the next task, leading to greater rewards as you build trust in yourself.

Some people find it helpful to create checklists of the small tasks they want to complete in a day. The smaller the task, the more you can add to your checklist. Each time you check off a completed task, you get a sense of accomplishment, leading to further motivation.

Another benefit to focusing on small tasks is that it keeps you from feeling overwhelmed when tackling everything all at once.

This is why the popular 12-step phrase, “one day at a time,” has been so powerful for many people in recovery. If one day at a time is too much, try focusing on one hour at a time or one moment at a time.

Back to the previous question: what is the next small task?

Don’t announce your goals

Another common mistake associated with focusing on lofty goals is the tendency to announce these goals to others. Although some people believe this helps hold them accountable, it often does the exact opposite.

By announcing your goals, you get external praise and validation. Jumping in head first, you develop an identity associated with your goal. Rather than focusing on small steps, you try to cash in early on the reward of the end goal by making it public. This makes focusing on the small steps seem dull in comparison, preventing you from gaining a sense of reward from the process itself.

study on this phenomenon states:

“…when other people take notice of an individual’s identity-related behavioral intention, this gives the individual a premature sense of possessing the aspired-to identity.”

Once a premature externally validated ego identity develops around one’s end goal, it also diminishes one’s level of humility toward the small steps necessary in the initial phase of change.

Stay in the humility zone

Developing an ego identity regarding your end goal is like using cocaine to feel confident. You get a short-term benefit at a long-term cost.

Since long-term motivation requires the ability to find rewards in a series of small steps, a lack of humility prevents you from engaging in the small tasks that offer these consistent long-term rewards.

Small steps seem less exciting than taking massive initial actions that are more noticeable and impressive to others around you.

For example, if you want to run a marathon, it would be wise to start slow and run shorter distances, slowly building your way up to the goal. This would require the humility to start small. Without humility, it is tempting to overdo it and get burnt out since you are constantly focused on your current lack of competency compared to the end goal.

Comparing your current self to your idealized future self sets you up to never feel like you are enough, leading to a constant sense of disappointment throughout the change process. This is the opposite of the humility zone where you appreciate each tiny bit of progress, leading to long-term motivational momentum.

12-step recovery programs build this into their programming since the first step requires admitting you are powerless over the substance/ behavior. In addition, before speaking at each meeting, members introduce themselves as an alcoholic or addict. This helps members get into the humility zone, setting them up to find gratitude in each small step toward recovery.

Focus on the next step

As previously mentioned, the 12-step recovery phrase, “one day at a time,” can teach us a great deal about motivation. In addition to making each day into a small step, the program has a series of steps facilitated with the social support of one’s peers.

Focusing on the next step makes changing feel less overwhelming since you have a sense of structure, direction, and the humility to appreciate the process.

If you want to create your own customized set of steps, consider trying the SMART principle.

This goal-setting method allows you to focus on daily, weekly, monthly, and annual goals. Each goal is not an end-point but a step on the path toward your long-term goals.

Here are the aspects to consider when creating a goal:

– Specific: Is this a specific goal, or is it too broad?

– Measurable: How would you measure progress toward this goal?

– Achievable: Is this a realistic goal?

– Relevant: Is this meaningfully connected to your values?

– Time-bound: What is your timeline/ deadline for this goal?

Conclusion

I hope this article helps you find the motivation to make significant long-term changes in your life.

Although counseling is a great way to expedite the process, you can start gaining motivation today by using the tools provided in this article.

First, inquire into what is preventing you from acting. Then focus on meeting your unmet needs, clarifying your values, and building motivational momentum through small actions.

If you are looking for even more insights into how motivation works, I highly recommend checking out the book, How We Change (And Ten Reasons Why We Don’t) by Ross Ellenhorn. There are many powerful insights in this book and you can even listen to the audiobook version for free if you haven’t yet signed up for Audible’s trial.

As always, I am looking for your feedback, so I can continue to refine these ideas in future content.

3 Simple Steps to Stop Overthinking

3 Simple Steps to Stop Overthinking

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If you’re struggling with overthinking, it might be difficult to focus on things that matter. Getting caught up in habitual patterns of worrying, you’re stuck in your head rather than living in the present moment.

Overthinking is the problem masked as the solution. Your mind may trick you into believing worrying is essential and productive, but deep down, you can see all the ways it holds you back.

So how do you stop overthinking?

  1. Identify what triggers your fear-response 
  2. Observe your mental behaviors
  3. Notice the reward value of this mental behavior.

In short, it means identifying the trigger, behavior, and result/ reward. This approach is based on the evidence-based technique described by Judson Brewer MD PhD, in his new book Unwinding Anxiety.

Using the science of addiction to understand anxiety, he goes beyond the more typical cognitive approaches and addresses the underlying motivational forces driving habitual worrying. I talk about this further in my article on addiction to overthinking.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out Judson Brewer’s book. As an addiction counselor, I find it fascinating how he uses the neuroscience of addiction to understand anxiety.

His three-step approach to “unwinding anxiety” is easy to apply and has often led to rapid results for my clients who struggle with habitual patterns of worrying.

Let’s unpack what each of these steps entails.

Identify what triggers your fear-response

As described in my previous article on how to stop overthinking, anxiety is a fear response triggered by uncertainty. To uncover the particular form of uncertainty driving your worrying, you can ask yourself these questions:

When do you commonly find yourself worrying? Do you often worry on a Sunday before work? What about times throughout the workday? Does it happen while trying to sleep? Or does it happen first thing in the morning?

What is the form of uncertainty in these situations that triggers your fear-response? Is it uncertainty regarding your ability to adequately perform a role? Is it uncertainty regarding a potential future catastrophe? What are common themes among your triggering moments?

Uncovering what triggers your patterns of overthinking allows you to come face to face with the problem your mind is unconsciously trying to solve. Faced with uncertainty, your mind goes into overdrive, trying to fill the gap.

Unfortunately, overthinking through repetitive mental problem-solving and worrying is often counterproductive because we don’t have control over the uncertain situation.

For example, worrying about your performance at work on Monday can feel necessary, but in reality, it likely just prevents you from resting and recharging so you can actually perform well.

Observe your mental behaviors

After you’ve identified your triggers, you can look at what your mind does in response. Judson Brewer calls this a “mental behavior.” To uncover the specific content of your mental behaviors, you can ask yourself these questions:

What is your mind telling you? Common thoughts include, “what if I fail, what if I never recover, what if I’m not enough.”

What common themes do you find in your thought patterns? Are certain themes associated with specific situations? Are there common themes across various situations?

An extra step I sometimes take during this stage of the process is to inquire about how far back these thoughts go.

Tracing these thoughts back to earlier memories in your life allows you to see the context in which this mental behavior was formed. Common origins include traumatic events, adverse childhood experiences with family, or bullying by peers.

Getting the context of these early thoughts allows you to recognize how these thoughts patterns are a learned behavior. Stepping back from the thoughts in this way allows you to recognize them as a coping strategy your mind likely developed for self-protection.

This allows you to not necessarily believe the contents of the thoughts as the truth about you as a person. Instead, you can see how they developed and how your mind continues to hold on to this strategy as a self-protective coping mechanism.

Notice the reward value of this mental behavior

This final step is the key to reset your brain’s motivational pathways. The previous steps were focused on thinking, but this step is focused on feeling.

Why is feeling so important?

Although we all like to pretend we’re rational, the psychology of motivation does not work that way. Our emotions primarily drive us. Our reason is often used after the fact to rationalize our emotional decisions.

Psychologist Johnathan Haidt uses the metaphor that our emotions are like the president and our reason is like the press secretary. Our emotions send off executive orders while our reason justifies and makes sense of these orders after the fact.

Trying to change human behavior through reason alone is like trying to convince the president he is wrong by arguing with the press secretary.

In more practical terms, it’s like telling someone with anxiety, “it’s going to be fine… just stop thinking about it.” If our brains were capable of doing this, there would be no need for therapy.

As described in the previous step, your brain held on to a particular style of coping because it rewarded you in some way. This reward may have consisted of keeping you safe from a volatile parent, helping you perform better in school to gain the praise of a driven parent, or helping you remain vigilant to avoid potential physical threats. If you’re interested in learning more about the early roots of distorted self-perceptions, you can check out my article, How to Heal From Emotionally Unavailable Parents.

By appreciating the real initial benefits of this coping mechanism, it allows you to approach the issue with self-compassion and perhaps appreciate how this coping mechanism is no longer necessary in your current situation.

Although your context has changed, your brain is likely still operating based on these outdated reward values. 

As a side note, it is also important to recognize if the context has not changed and your external circumstances are actively destructive. For example, if you’re in an abusive relationship, the goal would be to change the external circumstances rather than trying to worry about it less. 

So how do you update your reward system?

Pay attention to feelings in the present moment.

Like outdated antivirus software, your brain is trying to keep you safe from a perceived threat that may not even currently exist.

A practical way to update your feeling-based reward system is to use mindfulness.

As described in my previous article on overthinking, Jon Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as the following:

“…the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally.”

When it comes to your worry patterns, this is best done in the moment it is happening.

Notice when you are in one of your worry patterns. Then shift your attention to the feelings in your body. What do you notice? Is there tension anywhere? Is this feeling worth it?

Notice what your mind is telling you. In reality, is your overthinking protecting you? Is it solving the problem or getting you closer to a sense of certainty? Or is it distracting you from taking productive actions?

Overall, is this thought process rewarding?

At this point in the process, you have a choice.

You can continue with this pattern of thinking if it is offering you something. Or you can choose to try something new. In his book, Judson Brewer calls this the bigger better offer. He describes the bigger better offer as a replacement for worrying.

The bigger better offer may consist of getting curious about what your mind is doing. Curiosity counters fear because curiosity opens you up while fear closes you down. A curious perspective leads to critical thinking, whereas a fear-based perspective leads to overthinking.

Another bigger better offer may consist of doing something meaningful or values-based. If you find yourself in an overthinking habit-loop, you can recognize what is going on and make a conscious decision to focus on doing something else.

This behavioral replacement may consist of spending time with family, friends, getting exercise, going outside, or some other form of self-care.

When you choose the bigger better offer, notice how it feels while you’re doing it. In the same way I previously discussed bringing mindful attention to your worry habits to notice their true reward value, bringing attention to the bigger better offer activity reprograms your reward value through positive reinforcement. 

When you choose to do something different, let yourself experience the reward, noticing how your body feels. Long-term changes in thought patterns don’t just happen from trying to think different or do something different as a distraction. These things are a start. By attaching a feeling of gratitude to these moments, your brain begins to crave more of them. 

Over time, it does not need to feel like you’re constantly struggling with your thoughts or having to distract yourself with other actions. By reprograming your motivational pathways through mindful attention to the underlying patterns, these new positive habits become natural and automatic. 

Conclusion 

If you want to stop habitual patterns of overthinking, identify what triggers your fear-response, observe your mental behaviors, and notice the reward value of this mental behavior.

Using the trigger, behavior, and result/ reward (TBR) formula, you can replace unrewarding behaviors with a bigger better offer (BBO)—to use Judson Brewer’s acronyms.

If you want to learn more, I highly recommend checking out the book, Unwinding Anxiety. There is also an accompanying mobile app that helps you track these three stages of the habit loop. You can download it on the Play Store here (android) and the App Store here (Apple).

If you want more information on how to stop overthinking and exercises from the field of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), you can check out my previous article, How to Stop Overthinking and Start Living.

I hope the information in this article has been both practical and relevant. As always, I am looking for your feedback, so I can continue to refine these ideas in future content.

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