June 2, 2023

Bank of Bad Habits

Experts like to call alcoholism the disease of denial, but that applies to most any problem.
James Prochaska, Ph.D.

One by one they will do you in; they are bound to take control.
Jimmy Buffett “Bank of Bad Habits”

 Consider for a moment your bad habits and if you are interested in stopping one or more? Do you know why you continue with a particular habit?   What new habits do you  want to develop but can’t seem to start?

James Prochaska, author of “Changing for Good, writes on six stages of change: pre-contemplation, contemplation, planning, action, maintenance and termination.      In this blog, we will look at the pre-contemplation and contemplation in relation to stopping bad habits or starting good ones.

It is important to note bad habits often start by providing some positive function.  While we look into hoarding households and see chaos, the mess did not happen overnight. Hoarding for one couple started with two “needs”. The female shopped and bought items she felt her family needed. She felt good meeting that need. Eventually, she was buying and felt momentarily satisfied with shopping, though was no longer buying for need.    

The addictive shopping provided a “rush”, but was no longer taking care of her family. It was fulfilling her desire to feel better for the moment. She convinced herself of the need.

The husband, on the other hand, wanted to make the most of what they had. He saved; he was reluctant to throw away, thinking of another use or perhaps repairs. Item by item, day by day, they failed to notice the amount of stuff gathering in the house; they overlooked the way they were living.  

When the crisis happened, a threat to lose custody of their children, they finally paid attention.  With emotional turmoil and professional help, they simplified their residence.

Bad habits start slowly, as the story highlights; they may at the   beginning have had a positive purpose. Similarly, the bad habit of continually washing hands may start as a good health habit. Or an Internet gaming starts as a diversion but becomes hours on end spent mindlessly.  

At what point does a new skill become a bad habit? How can we pay attention? Paying attention is the key.

A woman has rotten food throughout her home. She doesn’t smell it; she doesn’t see it. In the same way, smokers don’t notice the burns in their clothes, the smoke stink in the house, people avoiding them or the discoloration of their teeth. It is just out of their awareness. Bringing the costs of the bad habit into awareness, then becomes step one.

This, according to Prochaska, bringing it to awareness is the pre-contemplation stage of change.  You know a behavior is present and consider that it may be a problem.

Think about a bad habit you have. What are the costs in time and distraction from productive activity?  Stop to consider the down sides of your behavior. Write down specifics on what it is you do.  Measure particularly the duration and frequency. If you think this habit may be worth taking positive action, you are moving from pre-contemplation to the contemplation stage. Maybe you will consider making a further change.

Next week, next steps.


Politics, Voting and the Stress Response

“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.” Anais Nin

What do you feel upon hearing some of the current political advertisements that may have upsetting tone or content?  If you get upset, do you know what happens to your physical and mental health?

Once again it is time to exercise our democratic prerogatives by voting. This right comes to fruition this week as the dark side of our thinking is also highlighted.

Politicians and their representatives often demean the opponent. These last two years, while seeming particularly nasty, offer nothing new. The opposition has a growing desire/ability to speak of opponents as if they are evil; as if there is intent to do what is inherently designed to wreak havoc with our city, county, state, or nation. Some ads are full of lies with rather mean spirited voice, not meant to inform, but rather to scare.

The point of view that either Sarah Palin or Barack Obama is evil, or trying to do evil, is not worthy. Both, and other politicians, are in fact humans that we sometimes disagree with yet often go overboard in our thoughts and statements to make that disagreement clear. 

From the perspective of our mental health, this continual agitated underlying thinking is not healthy. It creates in our body an ongoing low level production of adrenaline, cortisol and glucocorticoids that, when produced in continuous abundance, are not good for our physical or mental fitness.

It creates in our body this stress that is as if we are being attacked by a lion. The fight or flight response, at a low but near continuous level, is a known contributor to high blood pressure, diabetes and a variety of other physical conditions. Of course, if we are perpetually mad, it is also a contributor to depression and anxiety.

In our democracy, speak your mind as a loyal and patriotic person. Don’t be Pollyannaish either. We may recognize there are some politicians that have taken advantage; we must then speak up and remove them from office and in some cases send them to jail.

Think about this: Have you ever created in your mind catastrophes about what will happen if so and so wins? Then, when they win, there really is not much different in your day to day life. “It will be awful” we tell ourselves, if so and so wins. We feel bad when our candidate loses, but life goes on and we can try again in 2 or 4 years. This is the beauty of our democracy.

The rest of this story is that politicians are just humans, doing the best they can, some of whom happen to have a different way of solving problems than the one you may prefer.

Take an active and healthy role in our democracy. Keep elections in perspective and you will have a more robust mental well-being.

Be respectful, agree, disagree but VOTE.

Happiness and Stress Part 2

Three Good Things

The last of the human freedoms is to choose one’s attitudes. Victor Frankl.

Most people are about as happy as they make up their minds to be. Abraham Lincoln

In last week’s blog, you were introduced to Authentic Happiness and its exercise “Gratitude Visit.” How did you do writing your letter? What was your experience? Have you considered reading it, in person, to that person?

This week you will be introduced to exercise two: Three Good Things, which will demonstrate your ongoing improvement in happiness.

You might wonder “why bother” beyond the fact that being happy sounds more pleasing. Seligman reviews in Authentic Happiness that happier people are physically healthier (including lower blood pressure and healthier immune system), live longer, get over distress more rapidly, have a richer social life, more close friends. are more altruistic, and more productive.

Following are the steps for Three Good Things:
The first night you will take two scales (about 10 minutes total): Satisfaction with Life Scale and General Happiness Scale. Complete and score them. These provide a baseline rating of your happiness. You can compare your score with others and later retake the test to see the how much your happiness increased.

Access: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx

  1. Set aside five minutes each night for the next two weeks, preferably just before brushing your teeth.
  2. Prepare a pad of paper with one page for each of the next 14 days.
  3. Then think back over the previous 24 hours and write down, on separate lines, at least three things in your life that happened that day that represent something for which you are grateful.
  4. Answer in writing, the question “Why did this good thing happen for me?” or “Why did I deserve this?”
  5. Repeat the Life Satisfaction and General Happiness Scales on the final night, two weeks after you start, and compare these scores to the scores of the first night.
  6. If this works for you, keep incorporating it into your nightly routine. You have begun to successfully influence, in a positive way, how you think.

Give one or both of these a try. Please share your results on this blog.


Happiness Helps Relieve Stress

“Don’t worry, be happy” Bobby McFerrin

Dr. Martin Seligman and colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania are researching aspects of Positive Psychology in part to discover what works to make ourselves happy. Seligman’s goal is to “increase the total tonnage of happiness in the world.”

Beginning research has identified three tasks that consistently make a difference in increasing happiness and diminishing depression in people’s lives over extended periods of time. The early winners are: a) The Gratitude Visit, b) Identifying Three Good Things, and c) Using Your Top Strengths.

The Gratitude Visit is an assignment that Seligman encouraged for sometime but only recently researched. It consists of considering someone (teacher, coach, relative, or friend) from your past that had a positive effect with you or was particularly kind to you, and you’ve never expressed to that person the gratitude you feel.

The first task is to write a letter that fully expresses gratitude to the person. The second step is to deliver the letter personally and read it to the person. The reading of the letters is often moving for both people.

Three months after the exercise the readers had substantial and lasting benefit of greater happiness and less depression as compared with a placebo group. Seligman did not research the receivers but many moving and grateful responses were reported.

Consider a person in your life with whom you might do a Gratitude Visit. Chances are it will be useful for both parties.
Seligman discusses The Gratitude Visit in this video:


You can be part of Dr. Seligman’s research by registering at: http://www.authentichappiness.sas.upenn.edu/Default.aspx

The Authentic Happiness website also lists a variety of free tests you can take to learn about yourself and how you compare with others

Next week’s blog will cover the results of Identifying Three Good Things.


Mental Floss

In one ear and out the other, don’t you get criss crossed, I recommend you try a little mental floss.” Jimmy Buffett.

Buffet again has this clever line that makes some sense. What is mental floss? What can we do to clean out the “plaque” in our brains? Here are three ideas:

  1. Find a way to recover from the stress of your day. We often say we want to relax…then just do more. You can start with meditating or relaxing — sit in a quiet place to calm your mind on a daily basis. One way to do this to follow your breath. Close your eyes and pay attention to breath with the idea of doing it for at least 10 minutes; do not look at your watch until you know the time is up. When you mind throws to you the problems of the day, think “oh well” (“In one ear and out the other”) and go back to the breath. You will get back to the problems soon enough and be refreshed to boot.
  2. Perhaps the opposite is to mind storm. This is brainstorming by yourself. Write out a specific concern you have and come up with at least 20 options. Do not restrict yourself by saying “that’s too stupid” or “that will never work”; when you do this, creativity stops. Combine ideas and when done, pick one or two that have the most appeal and begin to apply the ideas to your concern.
  3. Get another perspective. Share your concern and ask for ideas. As with mind storming, don’t start by telling the other person what will or won’t work; instead look for ideas that clean out the plaque. You want a fresh view. Talking to the same persons you have always talked with is unlikely to produce different thoughts…reaching out for different ideas is a key here.

So get to it, clean out plaque on a regular basis. As Buffet says at the end of the song, “don’t forget to floss every day”.

Please share ideas you might have or use to do “mental floss”.


“Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette)”


Song Written By Merle Travis sung by Tex Williams

This hit song is said to have saved Tex Williams career. The sarcastic content made it clear, even in 1947, we knew that smoking was bad for health. Of course we should not smoke. If you smoke, stop! If you don’t smoke, good for you; don’t start.

At the same time, we often approach smokers as if they are dim-witted. That is not the case. While smoking has significant detriment to our health, we can know there are reasons that people smoke and we can learn from them. Below are 4 lessons.

  1. TAKE BREAKS. When I teach stress management, the first step is to learn to take breaks, to recover. Smokers take regular breaks while nonsmokers often trudge on task after task. One day looking out of my office on a 95 degree summer day, I see 4 women in the back of an SUV; they were all smoking and it seemed from my perspective rather enjoying the break they were taking. Meanwhile I was doing some paperwork that I rather dreaded…and thought “maybe I should take up smoking.”
  2. SOCIALIZE. These women were also socializing. I thought I bet they are talking about how much they are picked on and how together they are as smokers. Perhaps this mutual point of view would make their friendship more solid. Meanwhile I was becoming friendly with a treatment plan. Sigh. Having friends and taking time with them is quite healthy.
  3. ATTEND TO YOUR BODY. Smokers change their body chemistry. They get the immediate hit of nicotine and feed the addiction. They have it wrong though. Our task in reality is to add fruits, vegetables, water, protein, vitamins to our body. The energy and benefits from good nutrition is long term not brief like the hit of nicotine, caffeine or sugar. Take a break and eat an apple or yogurt with a friend.
  4. BE INDEPENDENT. Some smokers have this sense of independence. They demonstrate “you can’t tell me what to do; I’ll figure this out for myself”. Many started smoking as teenagers, a time for some rebellion telling adults “stick it in your ear” we can do what we “should not do.” One 50 yr old, trying to stop smoking, told me “I do not want to lose that sense of independence I feel when I smoke.” The point is how can we honor that sense of independence in a way that also honors our physical and mental health?

In short, take breaks, be with friends, put healthy substances in your body and find useful ways to honor your sense of independence.

Learn from smokers and manage stress using tools they use…but don’t smoke.


Road Trip with Ben

“We don’t know what’s going to happen in our lives-we just think we do.” Richard Carlson

“Just do it” Nike

In 2006 my son Ben and I decide to take a road trip. We were going to Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Our White Sox had won in 2005 so they would be featured; that was a great excuse to do what we had promised for some time. I thought Cooperstown with Ben would be great.

At the same time, it was 600 miles in the car. I dreaded that. I could foresee back aches, fatigue, too many trucks. I figured Ben would drive too fast and tail gate. I wondered how I could listen to his music for 600 miles. Oh well, that is just the price of the day in Cooperstown with Ben, I thought.

So we drive to Cooperstown. He drives better than I do. He teaches me about Bela Fleck and about Bare Naked Ladies (THE ROCK GROUP!). We talk of Jimmy Buffet and the Beatles and we talk and take turns napping and driving… and we talk. We remembered, we told jokes and we talked of our lives. The trip was most pleasant.

Cooperstown was fantastic. We saw all of the Hall of Fame and talked to many. We even made friends with Yankee fans. (In Cooperstown it seems everyone is just a baseball fan) We toured the quaint city and ate hot dogs and fries.

Then we got back in the car for the long ride back to Indiana. We talked of life and Bare Naked Ladies and slept and took turns driving. We told jokes and talked of our lives. We remembered…now including Cooperstown.

In Ohio, as we neared returning home, I realized that the best part of the trip was the time in the car. I did not want it to end. With a tear in my eye and a quiver in my voice I shared that with Ben. With a quiver in his voice he agreed the journey was for him was the best part too.

We now do a baseball road trip every year. This year we will drive to Busch Stadium in St Louis and Kaufman Field in Kansas City (and include the Negro League Baseball Museum). Some ask if our goal is to visit all the ball parks. That would be ok…but baseball is just an excuse for us to enjoy the trips. I am pleased we have learned to do so.

Make effort to enjoy your journey.


Psychotherapy and Happily Ever After

“I just want to live happily ever after every now and then.” Jimmy Buffett

I think Buffett shows great wisdom in this quote. At one level we would like to live happily ever after but our experience is reality intervenes. So Buffet makes it doable with the “every now and then” addition to the fairytale ending. I try to notice when this happens in my life. Recently, as Katie and I sat at Bub’s, an outdoor café next to the Monon bike trail in Carmel, I noticed. We had ridden a few miles and the bikes sat against the rail while a mother chased her 18 month old daughter between the chairs. We munched on our sandwiches and were drinking lemonade; I asked “are we having one of those ‘happily ever after times now’?” I like noticing…though sometimes it is later, and I can look back and see it from the present but often have been so involved as to miss it as it happened.

Do we get moments of this every day or every week and not notice? I often ask clients “how are you doing now?” My intent is to bring them into the present which is often much better than all those past and future places our mind perpetually tries to take us. Usually as a client sits with me, in the now, it is at least “ok”.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (pronounced cheeks sent me high!), author of the best seller “Flow” speaks of the concept of flow. It is in this state of flow that we function in the moment; perhaps, if we asked ourselves then are we “happily ever after” the answer would be “yes”. In the state of flow we are not going over and over either what has happened historically or “what ifs” of the future. In flow we are just occupied in what we are doing…now. While flow can be related to pleasure it is more likely to be connected to being productive and being involved. Often flow will happen as we do work that we are good at and that we feel good about. Time just passes and we are present in the now.

I like it when I notice”Happily Ever after” in the moment or later. It happens for me with family, exercising, or during a therapy session that is connected. By the way, Katie agreed that time was one of those for her too, and apparently noticing did not stop the episode!

Make effort to appreciate those “happily ever after every now and then” times. They may happen more often than you would guess. Maybe you had one today? Maybe now?

When, typically, does “happily ever after” happen for you?


Do you have favorite Rock and Roll quotes that you believe are with wisdom? If so please share them with me.