Improve your health by incorporating these behavioral strategies

Julia Samton, MD Director of Manhattan Neuropsychiatric and Board Certified in Psychiatry & Neurology Manhattan Neuropsychiatric

Behavioral psychologists believe that it is possible to shape behavior by reinforcing positive changes and discouraging negative behaviors. Early studies of behavioral psychology used animal models to prove the efficacy of this approach. For example, scientists learned they could teach a mouse to stay in a particular area of its cage by rewarding it with food and water when it roamed the desired area. The success of this approaches prompted behavioral psychologists to examine similar method in humans. Today, more sophisticated strategies have been developed using this model as a basic premise. We have learned that it is indeed possible to shape or mold human behavior by using adaptations of this philosophy. These strategies can often be applied if you are trying to reach a goal that involves changing behavior, such as weight loss and smoking cessation.


Do set specific goals

If you are trying to change a behavior, it is important to set a specific goal. The more precise and clear your goal is, the more likely you are to reach it. Ambitious goals are good, but overly ambitious goals can be discouraging. For example, if your goal is to lose weight, a good starting point is to eat fruit for dessert instead of cake. Specific goals around food and exercise are better than goals to improve overall health or reduce cholesterol, as these may fluctuate for reasons outside of your control.

Do self monitor

Think of yourself as a scientist when you self monitor. Using the example of weight loss, you keep an accurate diary of your intake and exercise frequency. If you track your behavior, it will be easier to problem solve if you do not see the changes you expected. Greater awareness of your own experience will help you maintain behavior, even when your motivation begins to taper.

Do find feedback and reinforcement

Find a trusted source, such as physician, spouse, or friend to help keep you on track. A doctor can provide regular check in, emotional support, and an external measuring stick of goals related to health. A spouse can can provide motivation or help you adjust behaviors. It might even be helpful for a group to work together to achieve a collective goal, such as a certain number of pounds lost or cigarette cartons not smoked. Outside feedback can keep your ambitions realistic and remind you to stay on course.

Do create incentives

Animal models often shape behavior through a system of rewards and punishments. Human studies have found that rewards are exponentially more powerful than punishment when it comes to shaping human behavior. Incentives can provide tangible indicators of progress and are shown to improve outcomes. Punishment creates less effective and enduring change. Before you begin any behavioral plan, it is important to make a list of rewards and behaviors to be rewarded. For example, if you are quitting smoking, you might make a plan to buy yourself a gift at the end of every week you refrained. If you are able to stop for six weeks in a row, plan a larger bonus incentive.

Do seek help

If you find that you are not meeting your goals, try to avoid getting overly frustrated and self punitive. Take a pause and think about possible resources. Speaking to a cognitive behavioral therapist can often help you define your goal and examine your plan. Sometimes it is impossible to sort through things alone. An unbiased and supportive therapist may provide you the encouragement and support to get back on track.


Do not be afraid of your anxiety

It is important to remind yourself that there is a reason you are performing an unwanted behavior. Using the example of weight loss, we often overeat in order to deal with anxiety or other negative emotions. It is important to realize that some of these feelings might resurface when you remove the behavior you are trying to change. However, recognize that these are only emotions, which might feel powerful, but are truly nothing to be afraid or ashamed about. As human beings, we all experience negative emotions. Accept that fact that feeling sad, anxious, and fearful are part being a normal normal human.

Do not be overly punitive

It is important to remember that, just like everything else on planet earth, you are a work in progress. In general, the motto is “progress not perfection.” If change seems like it is coming slowly, try not to get overly down and self deprecating. Feelings of self doubt are normal, but they can also be counterproductive. Work on accepting yourself at whatever stage you are at, and look forward regardless.

Do not disconnect from the plan

It is important to be constantly mindful of your goal. Remind yourself of why you are trying to change a behavior pattern. One of the main reasons people do not achieving New Years resolutions is that they while they resign to change on January 1, they forgo daily reminders to stick to their goal. Reiterate your goal daily and mark small achievements with incentives. Make your behavioral plan part of your lifestyle and avoid distancing yourself from a long term goal.

Do not compare yourself to others

If you are working in a group to make changes, do not get discouraged if it seems easier for others to make progress. Remember that everyone approaches a goal from their own launching point and there are many individual variations and adaptations. It is impossible to be aware of the internal life of someone else. Comparing yourself to others is unrealistic because you compare your internal experience to what you perceive others are like from the outside. Instead of comparing yourself to others, compare you to you. That is the only unbiased way to judge progress.

Do not fall into thinking traps

When we become frustrated, we often resort to common ways of thinking that can make our distress worse. Examples of negative thought patterns are all or nothing or black and white thinking, ruminating over “what ifs” or worrying about the future, or negative bias, in which individuals only pay attention to their failures and disregard the positive. When you notice you fall into a negative thinking trap, recognize your thoughts are not helpful. Challenge your thought patterns and try to come up with more realistic and balanced ways of thinking.

Jumping cartoon

Forming a behavioral strategy is a good way to achieve a long term goal. When you form strategy, it is important to specifically define your goal, and provide yourself with incentives as you obtain progress. Recognize that relapse is a normal part of achieving any goal. Try not to get too frustrated or overly punitive. If you fall into a negative thought pattern, challenge your assumptions and try to form a more balanced view. Stay in touch with your internal thoughts and daily goals. Take the long term view. If you aim for progress, not perfection, you will be have a more realistic chance of achieving your goal.

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Julia Samton, MDDirector of Manhattan Neuropsychiatric and Board Certified in Psychiatry & Neurology

Dr. Julia Samton is Board Certified in Psychiatry and Neurology and is currently the Director of Manhattan Neuropsychiatric, P.C. Dr. Samton is a voluntary faculty member at New York Hospital Weill Cornell and Lenox Hill Hospital in New York Cit...

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