10 Ways to Get Unstuck From Unhealthy Patterns

Opinion by EHN Staff

Written by Carlee Campbell, Patient Care Specialist at Edgewood Treatment Centre.

Long before I was willing to get sober, a counsellor mentioned the possibility of my being addicted to “anything they make two or more of,” which I naturally disputed. However, once I came to grips with the depths of my addiction, I certainly recognized this to be true. Of course, I needed some two years of further destruction to reach that level of acceptance. Now, with several years of sobriety, it’s quite clear my problem was never just a substance use or process disorder.  

Addiction, for me, is rooted in continually seeking an external solution to an internal problem. What exactly that external solution is, at any given moment in time, doesn’t really matter as along as it has a numbing effect. For example, stone-cold sober, my life has become unmanageable because of cookies. I still think it was a little judgmental for people to point out that the reason my pants didn’t fit was because I ate cookies for breakfast, but I will let that one slide. The real trouble is that the numbing never lasts. It takes more of the external solution, whether it’s alcohol, drugs, cookies, gold stars, TV shows, etc., to achieve the desired effect. Until, eventually, a thousand is never enough, the numbness is unachievable, and the whole system comes crumbling down. 

Enter treatment. Well, at least that is where I ended up starting life over again when my alcohol and process addictions took an incredibly dark turn. Treatment is such an incredibly difficult process, but it’s so rich with wisdom, far more than just the ten things I wrote about last week. Certainly, with recent external stresses threatening our hard-fought-for sanity and serenity, many of us have found it incredibly helpful to return to those very basic things that we did early on.  However, unexpected stress can always cause some of those ingrained, default, unhealthy behaviours to creep in—like an endless need for Chips Ahoy. Fortunately, in sobriety, those pesky behaviours tend to be far less life threatening, but can feel incredibly defeating, depressing, and generally gross. So, here are ten more tips designed to get us unstuck when our patterns are no longer serving us.

(1) Get Curious  

It’s always a good time to get curious about what is and isn’t working these days. A practical way is to take a look at the four quadrants of health that I discussed last week. Then grab four sheets of paper. Write one of the following headings on each page: Physical, Emotional, Psychological, and Spiritual. Then give yourself three minutes per page to answer the following questions: 

  • What am I doing to thrive? 
  • What am I doing that prevents thriving? 
  • What could I do to promote thriving? 

Write the first things that come to mind and aim for stream-of-consciousness thought. Park the over-analytical, self-judgement thoughts at the door. You will not have time for it in three minutes anyhow. Hence, the strict time limit.  

(2) Pick Your Battle 

Once you have your quadrants written out, quickly review, and give yourself a gut-reaction score from one to ten in each area. Think of one as being “hot mess in this area” and ten as “killing it.” Based on these scores, pick one thing you would like to work on. That’s right. Just one. Don’t overthink it. Just go with whatever the results show. You can always come back and pick another area to work on later. I don’t know about you, but when I pick too many battles, I end up fighting none of them. Instead, I usually end up in an overwhelmed heap on the couch contemplating what Jenny from third grade is doing. This article explains more about why you should only choose one battle. Also, the battle doesn’t need to be huge. It can be cookies. Apparently, when you eat them for breakfast, your physical quadrant score can be a bit low. 

(3) Consult an Expert 

When stuck in our old ways, we don’t always immediately know the way out. Our recovery gives us an amazing foundational set of tools, applicable to almost any situation. However, sometimes we just need an outside opinion of someone well-practiced in an area to point us in the right direction. Consulting an expert doesn’t always have to break the bank. Sure, when the issue is life-threatening, the investment of more resources may be a good idea. When we are just stuck in an undesirable habit, perhaps only a few individual counselling or group sessions can get us back on track. Heck, maybe all we need is a friend or acquaintance who has achieved something we want, and we can ask them how they got there. Perhaps all you need is this list of questions from bestselling author Mona Patel to get you in touch with your deeper reason for change and your bigger game plan for getting there.  

(4) Set SMART Goals 

Once you have the one specific quadrant, battle, and the bigger picture in mind, time to set the baby step goals that will get you there.  Having too many goals is just as bad as having a goal that is too abstract.  SMART goals are the way to go.  This method of goal setting requires setting a goal that meets the following criteria: 

(S)pecific

(M)easurable

(A)chievable

(R)elevant

(T)imely 

If you’d like to learn more, here is an article that goes into more detail about SMART goal setting. For example—and this may surprise you—my goal has never been to eat less cookies. That goal would not be smart, in that I would be miserable. It would also not be SMART. Hence, asking an expert. My weekly baby step goals included things like journal for five minutes every morning or adding lean protein to three meals every day. These were practical, specific, quantifiable things I could do to start creating new habits, that also coincidentally made me less likely to want a cookie at 2 a.m. 

(5) Ask for Help  

Accountability is key. It’s the one of the most commonly cited tools that leads to sustained behaviour change, in everything from big business to fitness. Of course, accountability, or sponsorship, is also the foundation of many community-based recovery programs. So, pick your partner wisely. It’s great if they achieved the thing you want. However, you are going to want to like them enough to speak to them regularly. In fact, for accountability to work, consistent communication and timely feedback are key. Equally important as defining your goal, is clarifying the method of accountability. Again, get specific and quantify the plan.  For example, initially, daily check-ins by text and a weekly phone call may be necessary. Then, assess during your phone call whether that level of accountability is working.  

(6) Take Feedback

Here’s the unfortunate bit. The feedback we get from the accountability is only useful if we listen to it. However, listening to tough feedback, which should come along with that whole accountability thing, is not always easy. My favourite initial response is to tell the person how wrong they are, whether that is in my inside or my outside voice. Rather than fight, you may find yourself choosing flight or freezing. There’s a scientific reason for that. Namely your amygdala being triggered. So how do you overcome biology when feedback triggers the worst? A good start is pausing and expressing gratitude for the opportunity to learn (even if it’s about how wrong they are). Looking for the one percent of truth in the feedback or any resonance with patterns in your life is also a good call. If you’re still stuck, ask the giver of the feedback some questions! You might be surprised at what you find out about yourself. You can also try these tips for overcoming your biologically driven reactions to feedback.

(7) Play the Tape Forward

So what happens when you want do the “bad” thing you’re trying not to do anymore? You are going to want to do the “bad” thing at some point, so being prepared is always good. An incredibly helpful technique is to rewind the mental tape to the last moment in time you did the thing you are now trying to avoid. Then press the mental play button. Visualize what the behavior looked like, how it felt both mentally and physically, and what thoughts you had to cope with in the aftermath. In short, have a real honest look at how the whole thing worked out for you the last time you did it. If you are having trouble, use a lifeline and phone a friend.  

(8) Aim for Progress Not Perfection

If we are going to make changes during this time, or at any time for that matter, it’s helpful to remember the end goal is not perfection. Perfection is impossible. In recovery and in life, what really matters is persistence. Sustained change happens in baby steps over decades not days. Replace perfectionism with persistence and watch what happens. For more on the importance of persistence when it comes to behavior change, particularly around food, a wonderful read is Life without ED by Jenni Schaefer.  

(9) Treat yourself 

Celebrate the small wins, not just winning the big battle. Again, it’s simple science. Your brain on dopamine if you will. Dopamine is the chemical that tells our brains something is worth repeating. Studies have shown you will also be more likely to continue doing the behavior if the steps towards a goal are rewarded, not just the final destination. In fact, after a period of time, you are likely to keep doing the behavior even once the reward has been removed. On a more basic, less intellectual level, a reward just feels good and it’s fun to get a prize. 

(10) Stay in Your Shoes

When patients complete treatment at Edgewood, they get a keychain with “stay in your shoes” inscribed on it. Historically, this saying evolved from page 48 of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions of Alcoholic Anonymous. However, over time, it’s become synonymous with many different reminders, including staying present, enjoying the journey, and the fact that a setback does not mean that you have to abandon your plan altogether. Change is challenging and never comes in a perfect, pretty box. In fact, whatever battle you pick, you might never achieve the initial big picture goal you set out for yourself. However, you will learn so many amazing things along the way. I promise that the attempt will be well worth your effort if you’re willing to learn from it. In fact, in reflecting on those battles we need to pick, C. Joybell stated the following:

Choose your battles wisely. After all, life isn’t measured by how many times you stood up to fight. It’s not winning battles that makes you happy, but it’s how many times you turned away and chose to look into a better direction. 

What About the Cookies?

Are you still wondering how the whole cookie battle played out? Well, unsurprisingly, it’s still a work in progress. I have learned, with help, the problem is not the cookies. It was everything around the cookies. Eating cookies is not problematic. Eating them to stuff feelings is. So is eating them to make up for a deficit of calories during the day. As much as I would like to fuel my body solely with cookies, when I tried, let’s just say the physical and mental results were less than optimal. So when I found myself stuck on cookies, I consulted a registered nutritionist and personal trainer familiar with addiction and eating disorder recovery. I also talked to my counsellor, with whom I still intermittently check-in before making big moves, particularly recovery related ones. 

In my case, when my eating is generally on track and my feelings get the proper airtime that they need, cookies and I peacefully co-exist. I mean, I’m still going to eat the delicious homemade cookies at work. If you’ve tasted the baking here at Edgewood, you know why! I’m not going to ever hit cookie-free perfection in this area, nor would I want to. Cookies, in moderation, contribute to my happiness. I am also happier saying no to the over-processed, mega boxes at the grocery store. If I find myself back on the Chips Ahoy down the road, I now know that it’s just a sign to pause, figure out what’s really going on, ask for help, and dig back into connection again. That’s what recovery, cookie or otherwise, is all about.  

We Can Help You

If you would like to learn more about the treatment programs provided by EHN Canada, or if you have any questions about addiction or mental health, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.

Online Treatment and Support

If you’d like to learn more about our online treatment and support options, please call us at 1-800-387-6198 or visit onthewagon.ca.

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