Cognitive Behavioral Strategies

Lynne S. Gots, Ph.D.
Licensed Psychologist

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Washington, DC 20037

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Why You Don’t Need Willpower to Change a Habit

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 27th, 2017.

There’s no shortage of advice this time of year about eating clean and getting ripped. And while the prospect of a new you in the new year can be seductive, especially after a month of overindulgence, I’m not a fan of restrictive diets or New Year’s resolutions. They simply don’t work over the long haul.

Any rigid regimen carries with it the whiff of deprivation, of restraint, of saying “no” when your mind wants you to say “yes.” The key, we’re told, is willpower.

Just say no. Just do it.

Let’s be real. If it were so easy to turn away from that donut or force yourself out the door on a dark, frigid January morning to go to spinning class, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

We know from research that willpower is a limited resource. Over time, with repeated use, it becomes depleted, just like any energy source. And the moments when we most need it—say, after a stressful workday at happy hour when the margaritas are $5 and the queso and chips beckon—it’s gone.

So I suggest changing the narrative. It’s too easy to throw in the towel when you tell yourself, “I don’t have any willpower.” Those words render you powerless in the face of overwhelming forces beyond your control.

Instead of recruiting willpower to help you pursue your goals, consider building willingness power.

Willingness starts with motivation. Begin by looking at the costs and benefits of the behavior you want to change. If you want to improve your diet, for instance (notice I didn’t say “eat clean”), pay particular attention to what you get from the undesired habit. The costs will be readily apparent to you. But the benefits? Not so much.

To get you started, here are some real-life examples of the benefits of overeating (continuing to eat past the point of satiety or even to discomfort) I’ve heard over the years:

  • It relaxes me.
  • I enjoy the taste of food.
  • It keeps me from feeling bored/ lonely.
  • It’s social.
  • I don’t like rules.
  • I deserve a reward.
  • It passes the time.

Then look at the costs (I’ll bet you won’t have any trouble coming up with a long list) and review them daily or more frequently if necessary. Remind yourself why it’s worth it to forego all the positive associations with the behavior you want to change in order to achieve your goal.

In a nutshell, willingness means being open to feeling short-term discomfort for long-term gain. It’s a useful skill to cultivate, and not just for sticking with a diet or exercise plan but for all the challenges life brings.

So in 2018, ditch the idea of willpower and practice willingness power. You’ll be laying a more solid foundation for success.




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The Only New Year’s Resolution You’ll Need to Make to Improve Your Well-Being

By Lynne Gots, posted on December 31st, 2015.

Here’s an interesting statistic: 45% of Americans will kick off the New Year tomorrow with a list of resolutions for self-improvement. Only 8% will succeed, and their chance of success will go down with every decade past 30.

By far the most popular resolution (45%) is to lose weight and get fitter. Others in the top ten include getting organized, being happier, learning something new, quitting smoking or drinking, finding love, and spending more time with family and friends.

I’m all for setting goals. But most people fail to achieve them because they go about it all wrong. Instead of focusing on the process of living in a way that’s compatible with what’s really important to them—according to what they most value—they’re fixated on a specific vision of an end point that may or may not be achievable.

Take losing weight. There are countless plans for the dieter to choose from, all claiming to take off 10 or 20 pounds or more in a month. Just 30 days! And they all probably work, more or less, but only for a short time (or why would there be so many diet recidivists come January 1?).

A more effective and sustainable approach would be to consider why you want to lose weight. And if you can tie in the goal of weight loss with your other resolutions, even better. Is it to have more energy so you can get organized, learn something new, and spend more time with the important people in your life? Is it to prevent or control a chronic health problem so you can enjoy your family into old age? Is it to be more attractive so you can feel more confident and find love? Is it to feel more in control of your life so you can get organized and look for a more satisfying job?

If you’re taking steps—“committed actions”—leading you in the direction of what you truly value, you don’t have to wait for a month, or two, or six to fulfill your resolution. And you can work on several at once. Feeling a sense of accomplishment along the way will help head off the inevitable frustration causing so many to abandon their best intentions by Valentine’s Day.

So my advice is to make only one resolution this year: let your values guide your actions.

 

 




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News You Can Use: Small Actions Can Boost Your Mood

By Lynne Gots, posted on January 10th, 2015.

If winter is getting you down, consider putting a spring in your step—literally—to feel more energetic and happier.

It’s not hard to recognize people who are sad or depressed from the way they carry themselves: slumped shoulders, lowered gaze, downturned mouth, and shuffling gait. Happy people, in contrast, stand up straighter, make eye contact, smile, swing their arms, and bounce along at a brisk pace.

Short days and post-holiday doldrums can take their emotional toll; temperatures in the single digits may worsen the seasonal blues by limiting our exposure to sunlight and causing us, when we do brave the elements and venture outside, to bow our heads, hunker down against the cold, and pull our arms in tightly against our chests.

Posture, it turns out, can affect mood. The results of some recent research point to a connection between how we walk and how we feel.

In one study, undergraduates (who, due to their ready availability and incentives to participate, are the most commonly tested subjects in psychology experiments) were told to attempt to move a gauge as they walked on a treadmill. For one group, the gauge moved when they bounced along at a fast, “happy” clip; for the other, the gauge responded to a slowed, “depressed” pace.”

After being given a list of 40 words—half negative, such as “ugly” and half positive, such as “happy”—the subjects in the depressed group recalled more of the negative words. Another study by the same research team, which used people actually suffering from depression rather than randomly selected undergraduates, produced similar results when half the participants were told to slump. Subjects instructed to sit upright recalled fewer negative words.

Although more research with larger samples (each of the above studies tested fewer than 40 subjects) would be required to draw any broad conclusions, the results make intuitive sense. They also lend support to the framework underlying cognitive-behavioral therapy: making even small changes in behavior can help alter moods.

If walking isn’t an option–say you’re sitting at your desk and feeling in a funk with a deadline looming–try smiling.  The act of putting on a happy face can activate neural pathways to boost serotonin and dopamine, two of the neurotransmitters targeted by most antidepressant medications.

To be clear, none of these microphysical adjustments will cure a serious case of depression. If you suffer from more severe, intractable mood problems, please seek professional intervention. But for the garden variety blahs so common this time of year, why not try walking happy? It just might help.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 




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This blog is intended solely for the purpose of entertainment and education. All remarks are meant as general information and should not be taken as personal diagnostic or therapeutic advice. If you choose to comment on a post, please do not include any information that could identify you as a patient or potential patient. Also, please refrain from making any testimonials about me or my practice, as my professional code of ethics does not permit me to publish such statements. Comments that I deem inappropriate for this forum will not be published.

Contact Dr. Gots

202-331-1566

2440 M Street, NW
Suite 710
Washington, DC 20037

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If you don't receive a response to an email from Dr. Gots in 48 hours, please call the office and leave a voicemail message.

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