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How to Change Habits in the Context of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: How To Restructure Thoughts in the Context of CBT

Are your brain, thoughts, and habits being unhelpful? Do you desire to be sane, stable, and sensible? Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can help. Psychology today states that, “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that treats problems and boosts happiness by modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts.” Instead of deconstructing your childhood, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy reconstructs new, adaptive thoughts to help you form helpful habits. These habits will help change the way you live, think, and act in your life. Think of CBT as a form of rewiring your brain. You can use CBT to change unhelpful habits into effective ones and this article will help you understand how.


Changing habits is not an easy task. Here are three steps to changing habits:

1)    Attention

Acknowledge what you want to change and put your attention towards your behavior. Identify the habit you want to replace with clear specificity and put all your attention towards it when it comes up. This is akin to mindfulness.


2)    Focus

Focus on your behavior when that habit or craving comes into play. Focus on bringing your awareness to the habit you want to replace it with. Remind yourself to focus on the reason why you want to change or the pros and cons of acting on the urge. This will give you a “why” which is extremely important in facilitating real change.


3)    Purposeful Repetition

In order to create new neural pathways in your brain, repetition is crucial. Stay mindful and purposeful as you replace the old habit with the new habit. Repeat this action until it becomes second nature.

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The human brain is capable of many things. It is capable of positive, physical change, and rewiring in response to stimuli. It is capable of reprogramming problematic habits like smoking, extreme dieting, or negative thoughts, into new, more effective habits. It requires identifying the problem, unlearning the unhelpful behavior, and learning new behaviors. Let the past stay in the past. Forge a new pathway to positive change by retelling your story. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy could also be known as self-examination, reflection, and redefinition. CBT is a renowned approach used to cope with many disorders like anxiety, depression, eating disorders, and turning unhelpful habits into helpful ones.



Habits can be changed from ineffective to effective


Habits can be helpful or unhelpful. It is difficult to change a habit, like reaching for a cigarette, because your brain creates associations with that action, and there is reinforcement for engaging in it. For example, if you are used to smoking a cigarette every time you go outside, you may automatically reach for a cigarette when you are in fresh air. If you experience some relief while smoking a cigarette, you are more likely to continue smoking to get relief.  

Breaking a habit is tough to do unless you stay attentive to the behavior. Think of a new positive action to replace the negative action. For example, try reaching for a glass of water instead of cigarettes. Then repeat that positive action whenever you feel a need to smoke until it becomes second nature. If repeated enough, it will replace the negative habit from your subconscious with a positive one.


Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Techniques

Here are some key ingredients when trying to identify patterns, motivate yourself, and change your behavior:

  • Become self-aware and practice mindfulness. Notice the signs that a new habit is forming.

  • Change your behavior when you notice the behavior beginning to repeat.

  • Use Cognitive Behavioral Techniques to intentionally do something else to replace the habit.

  • Relax your mind and de-stress. Meditation helps reset your mind to make positive choices and healthy decisions.

  • Get crystal clear about what it is you want to change. Reward yourself when you complete the cycle.

Activity to try:

Take a few minutes to write down exactly what it is you want to change. It has been found that you are 42% more likely to achieve your goals if you write them down. Focus on your behavior, pay attention to your urges, and intentionally repeat and replace that unhelpful action with an effective one.


Have patience, forgive yourself, but stay as consistent as possible


To make your helpful habit stick, you have to give it time. You must stay consistent in your repetition of the replacement tool and give it time to replace previous behaviors and become automatic. This can take weeks or even months to complete. A study done by Dr. Phillippa Lally at University College London found that it takes about sixty-six days to complete automaticity. To simplify, for an action to become automatic, it takes a little over two months of intentional, repetitive action. Missing one or two days of this habit loop cycle is not the end of the world. It is necessary to stay consistent, mindful, and self-aware to complete the habit loop and replace unhelpful habits with effective ones.


In summary:


Understanding the way our minds work is fundamental in achieving success when using the habit replacement tool. If we use Cognitive Behavioral Therapy techniques and the act of repetitive substitution in place of old, negative patterns and behaviors, we will see slow, steady, change in our habits. We first must use our focus and mindfulness meditation to determine what it is we want to change. We must identify the cues and routines that arise when our mind leans towards past patterned negative behavior. Finally, we must intentionally replace that negative behavior with something more helpful using CBT techniques and positive, repetitive action. Always remember to forgive yourself if you miss a day or two because perfection is not the goal. Finally, stick with the positive substitution habit for at least sixty-six days. Committed, repetitive action will rewire your brain to make room for the new, learned behavior. The unhelpful habit will thus be replaced with an effective habit and you will feel more confident and in control than ever before.

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