Changing Habits 3

This is a summary of what we covered in the last class on changing habits. I was impressed by how engaged people were and how many ideas they shared. (I apologize for the delay in posting.)

Everyone caught on to the concepts well. We could all see how the various types of stress, i.e. pressure from demands, distress from negative emotions, and strain from sympathetic activation could all make it difficult to change a habit. With this framework people came up with ideas for reducing these different components in order to make developing a healthy habit easier and more successful.

One of the more subtle and more important points that I want to emphasize here is how the feedback between distress from negative emotions and sympathetic activation can be a major source of difficulty.

Negative emotions create desire and aversion. We desire something to relieve the negative emotions. We have aversion to what seems to be causing the negative emotions. A behavior is reinforced because it reduces desire or aversion. I am using want to refer to both desire and aversion. Desire and aversion are opposites, but they both increase want. An unhelpful habit is a behavior that reduces want, but that  has a net detrimental effect. We have been talking about the unhelpful habits of eating comfort food and avoiding physical activity.

Want increases sympathetic activation. This is usually helpful because that activation can help us satisfy the want, either by obtaining what we desire or avoiding what we are averse to. Unfortunately, sympathetic activation also increases want. We all know that if we are tired, or hungry or in pain, then we are much more likely to want something comforting, and much more averse to conditions that we might otherwise overlook.

So … Want increases sympathetic activation, and sympathetic activation increases want. Notice that this is a feedback loop that can easily escalate. As the level of want increases our tendency to engage in the unhelpful habit increases as well.

When we work on changing a habit we often use methods to reduce the desire for the unhelpful habit or reduce the aversion for the helpful habit. For example, we eat small meals throughout the day to reduce the desire to eat comfort food. Or, we try to exercise in a pleasant environment.

We will also use cognitive techniques to reduce desire and aversion. For example, we will give ourselves reasons to avoid comfort food and other reasons for engaging in physical activity.

These are useful, but they do not reduce the feedback loop between desire/aversion and sympathetic activity. To do that we must train ourselves to have strong desires or aversions and stay calm while we are feeling them. Its not reducing our want for the cookies. Its wanting the cookies very badly and staying at ease while we ignore them. Its not reducing our aversion for exercise. Its really disliking the exercise but being at ease while we engage in it.

“Want tolerance” is a method to help us stay calm even when we are feeling strong desire or aversion. Imagine that you are standing in a river with the current pulling on your body. Want is like the current, and want tolerance is your ability to resist the current without much effort.

The following material is a more detailed explanation of a similar technique described in Changing Habits II .



If the habit you are working on changing is a drug addiction, eating disorder behavior, or other such serious condition then this exercise can cause  significant distress. You should make sure that you have adequate support, preferably from a professional, to keep that from happening before you use this exercise.

Preparation Step 1: Find something that calms you when you place your attention on it. This is your anchor. The anchor may be the sensations of breathing. It may be some calming or encouraging thoughts. The anchor may be a memory or imagined experience.  The calm anchor can also be the feeling of success that comes from having done the new, helpful behavior. You may need to try out a couple of different things to find an effective anchor. Practice placing your attention on your calm anchor until you can do that easily and maintain your attention on it for a couple of minutes. This should have a calming effect on your body.

Preparation Step 2: Come up with several things that evoke the experience of want that leads you to engage in the habit. This might be the memory of the food, situations in which you eat the food, or the memories of avoiding the exercise, or the feeling of simply not wanting to go exercise. We usually have little difficulty thinking of things that evoke the desire or aversion.

Once you have a calm anchor and know how to trigger your want you are ready to practice want tolerance.

  1. Place your attention on your calm anchor for about a minute. Feel your body calm. Call this state C.
  2. Shift your attention to something that triggers the desire or aversion; something that triggers the want. Let your body respond to this. Do NOT try to stay calm. Do this for about 30 seconds. Call this state W.
  3. Shift your attention back to the calming anchor, state C. Maintain your attention there till your body feels calm, and then rest your attention there for about a minute.
  4. Now shift your attention back to a trigger, state W. Let your body respond for about 30 seconds.
  5. Shift your attention back to the anchor, C. Experience your body calming for about a minute.
  6. Shift to state W. Hold for about 30 seconds.
  7. Continue to shift back and forth from C to W so you experience W at least 4 times. You should notice that shifting your attention to W causes less and less of a body response.
  8. End by shifting your attention to your anchor and enjoying the calm for a minute or so.

This exercise, want tolerance, is like lifting weights with your neuroendocrine system instead of your muscles. State W is like lifting the weight and state C is like resting. The key points are:

  • You are simply shifting your attention and letting your body respond.
  • You do not try to stay calm in state W. If it gets uncomfortable simply shift your attention back to state C.
  • State C is your rest state so keep your attention there till you feel ready to shift back to state W.
  • If you are having trouble maintaining state C then stop the exercise.
  • It can help to do the exercise when you are not likely to feel intense want. For example if the habit you are working to change is eating cookies, and the trigger for state W is to imagine cookies, then you should not practice when you are very hungry as then you may have a hard time getting back to state C.




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