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Stop Feeding the Dog: Break Negative Cycles

Imagine that you have a dog. In this case, it’s a big, mean, nasty dog (not your cuddly pet). We’re sitting around the table eating dinner, and this dog comes up begging for food. Just one little bite is all it wants. You give it a bite, and it goes away…

Until tomorrow. The dog comes up. This time, one bite’s not good enough. Now it wants two. The next day, it wants three.

This goes on and on until the dog is eating all of your food – and all of mine. Are you ok with that? I’m certainly not! So what do you do?

You can’t reason with a dog, right? “Go eat your Alpo. This is my pizza!” Dogs don’t speak English.

What’s your next option?

(For the purposes of this example, you can’t get rid of the dog). You could certainly try eating out, but what happens when you eat at home again? Nothing has changed. You could try locking the dog in a kennel while you eat, but has the dog really learned anything? What would happen if you let it out?

Your only real option is to STOP FEEDING THE DOG.

Now, as I mentioned, this is a big, mean, nasty dog. If it comes up expecting a bite and you don’t give it one, what is it going to do?

It’s going to beg, bark, whine, and scratch. Are you going to feed it then?

NO! (I know some of you may be tempted, but if you truly want to eat in peace, you have to be strong here).

EVENTUALLY, if you don’t feed it, the dog will give up and go away. And if you don’t feed it from the table the next time or two it begs, it will eventually learn to leave you alone.

Your mind is just like that dog. You must quit feeding it to break negative cycles.

When you feel anxious and have negative thoughts and you avoid, or otherwise, “feed the dog,” you get relief…but you are pretty much guaranteed to feel anxious next time. You are stuck in a negative cycle, and breaking the cycle can be hard, but it is possible! 

When you have a craving for sweets, and you indulge that craving, “feeding the dog,” you’ll notice more cravings.

When your mind says “You don’t have time for that” and you “feed the dog” by sacrificing self-care, you’re all but telling your mind “I like that thought.” It is going to return, louder than before. 

The good news is, you can stop feeding the dog! You just have to notice the cycle of negative reinforcement. 

Negative Reinforcement

This process is called negative reinforcement. Contrary to what most people mean when they say it, negative reinforcement actually means increasing the likelihood of a behavior by removing something unpleasant. In other words, when something gives you relief of some sort (e.g., from pain, discomfort, by getting rid of unwanted thoughts or feelings), you’re likely to do that thing again in the future. It can create a vicious, self-feeding cycle.

Like scratching an itchy mosquito bite, these actions provide short-term relief while amplifying the problem in the long run.

Fortunately, you have the power to override your mind, to resist feeding the dog, and break negative cycles, if you are willing to endure its tantrum (check out Ascend for more techniques to help with this).

At Peak Mind, we love to say that your mind can be your greatest asset or your biggest barrier. You get to choose.

What amplifying loops are you in?

Are you ready to break negative cycles and stop feeding the dog?

Are you ready to have more positive thoughts and helpful habits? 

“Growth is uncomfortable; you have to embrace the discomfort if you want to expand.”
– Jonathan Majors

P.S. A huge shout out goes to Dr. Marty Franklin, pediatric psychologist and anxiety expert at the University of Pennsylvania. I learned the feed the dog metaphor from him years ago and have used it no less than 1000 times since.

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Change Your Habits, Change Your Life!

Change your habits, change your life, and right now it’s more important than ever.

As the world begins to return to some semblance of normality, you might find that some of your old habits sneak back into your life. Or, maybe you have found that you’ve developed some new habits during the quarantine period that you want to change.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, this post is for you. We’re going to break down exactly what a habit is (they’re VERY misunderstood) and ways to change them.

What is a habit?

Did you know that upwards of 40% of our behavior and 80% of our cognition is involuntary? 

Think about that!

Nearly half of the behaviors you execute in a day happen outside of your intentional control.

This is because our brains are habit-forming machines. They’re EXCEPTIONAL at it, and for good reason. Our brains have very big jobs. They have to run and maintain all of our bodily functions, while simultaneously taking in an incomprehensible amount of information each day, all the while, keeping us from missteps that could hurt or kill us.

No small feat!

To help preserve resources, our minds automate as much as possible, and much of that automation happens in the form of habits.

Good habits are hard to make and bad habits are hard to break. The effort required to break a habit, even as small as biting your nails, can take weeks of effort to adjust habit loop cues. Once you’ve formed new habits (hopefully good ones), it can be just as hard to make those habits stick.

Now here’s the thing, habits are very misunderstood. People typically think about exercise, drinking, eating, and other things like that. But, habits are much broader than that. 

Habits are any behavior that is cued by something external or internal (or sometimes both) that leads to a reward. It’s that simple.

When you think about it that way, you start to realize that habits are broad and pervasive in our lives. 

Seeing your toothbrush cues you to brush your teeth.

Smelling coffee cues you to go out and get the newspaper.

Your hunger pang at 12:00 cues you to look for food.

A specific chime on your phone calls you to check your social media.

Laying down in bed cues you to pick up your phone and check email.

So many of our behaviors run off of external and internal cues, which means it can be incredibly difficult to make changes to our routine when our environment is such a strong driver behind our behavior.

Never fear! There are a few things you can do to make it more likely that you’ll successfully harness the power of habits and help you to change your habits. 

TIP #1: Get specific & intentional

Many people lose the habit game before they even start playing. It’s because they haven’t really thought through what behavior they’re trying to change.

They’ll say things like, “I want to eat better.” That’s not specific at all!

Being specific and intentional means examining your current behavior and selecting the very specific, “point-at-able” thing you want to change. (“I want to stop snacking after 8:00 pm.”)

TIP #2: Dissect the behavior

Scroll back up and look at that image of the anatomy of a habit that you saw earlier in this post. If you’ve done Tip #1, you’ve identified the middle of the sandwich: the behavior.

To truly understand your behavior and have a chance at changing it, you have to dissect the other 2 parts as well.

What cue (or CUES!) trigger you to want to execute the behavior?

What reward (or REWARDS!) do you get for executing the behavior?

In our previous example, your late-night snacking probably has a few cues, both internal and external.

  • Seeing the sun go down is a temporal (time-based), external cue
  • Feeling the boredom of the evening set in is an internal cue
  • Feeling a pang of hunger is an internal cue
  • The thought, “Come on, you’ve had a hard day and deserve it!” is another internal cue

You get the picture. Multiple cues can work together to trigger an involuntary behavior like late-night snacking.

The reward you get can be just as nuanced:

  • My boredom is relieved by snacking.
  • I feel rewarded and acknowledged for my hard work that day.
  • The fatty or sugary food tastes good.

TIP #3: Watch for cues!!!

Once you know what cues your behavior, spend a few days (or weeks, depending upon the regularity of the behavior), noticing the cues in action in your environment. Don’t worry about changing your behavior just yet. Just get good at noticing the cues and calling them out.

TIP #4: Replicate the reward

Now comes the real magic. Experiment with other behaviors that you can insert into the middle of the sandwich that give you the same or a similar reward to what you got from the original behavior you want to replace

Experiment with a BUNCH of different options. Try them on for size for a few days and see which ones work better for you. 

TIP #5: Monitor and separate yourself from your thoughts

As you make changes, your mind is going to go crazy! As I mentioned, our minds LOVE habits. Anything that we can execute involuntarily is one more thing our minds don’t have to worry about. 

Expect that your mind will throw you very convincing arguments against the behavior change you’re trying to make. This is so normal. 

Practice mindfulness by labeling the thought, (“The thought that I deserve that cookie is just my mind trying to get me to go back to my old habit.”). Then, practice labeling any of the urges, feelings, or thoughts that arise from it.

The goal isn’t to ignore anything or stop thinking. That’s not possible and can even back-fire. 

Rather, acknowledge the thought without judgement and label the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that arise.

TIP #6: Mind the gap!

Finally, as you’re making a habit change, expect that you’ll revert back to your old behavior. Habits are POWERFUL, even if they’re simple to dissect and understand. 

NEVER, NOT FOR ONE MOMENT, should you think you’ve failed, “fallen off the wagon,” or quit just because you’ve reverted back to an old behavior during your habit-change journey.

Instead of focusing on your one slip-up, start paying attention to the duration of the “gap” in between slip-ups. If you’re going in the right direction, that gap should slowly widen over time. 

If it does, THAT IS SUCCESS! Even if you slip up. That widening gap means you’re weakening the old behavior and strengthening the new one. 

Keep practicing with different cues, behaviors, and rewards until you start to see that gap widen.

Want more info?

This was the tiniest, mini-crash course in habits, but there is a wealth of information in this arena that is so worth diving into especially if you want to break bad habits in addition to forming good new ones.

If you’re interested in learning more, I highly recommend the following 3 books:

 

I also encourage you to try out Peak Mind’s ASCEND program. In addition to all of the great psychological strength building content, you’ll get access to a bonus Habit Formation & Change module.

You can do this!

My biggest wish for you coming out of this post is that you intentionally think about the actions you take in a given day / week / month / year, and spend some time thinking about which ones move you in the direction you want to go, and which ones don’t.

Too many of us are living our one precious life on auto-pilot.

You deserve more than that.

You deserve to live intentionally, purposefully, and by design. 

“Every action you take is a vote for the type of person you wish to become. No single instance will transform your beliefs, but as the votes build up, so does the evidence of your new identity.”
 – James Clear (“Atomic Habits”)