Break Unhealthy Patterns With Cognitive Behavioral Approaches

Cassie Christopher, MS, RDN, Arivale Coach
Cassie Christopher
MS, RDN, Arivale Coach

If you’ve ever tried to change your behavior, chances are you’ve slipped up a time or two.

Consider Arivale member Patrice*, who is trying to decrease her intake of high-sugar foods and yet finds herself repeatedly indulging when she walks through her front door at the end of a long day. She and her Arivale Coach have tried many solutions­–balancing her blood sugar and stress-management practices to decrease cravings, for example. Nothing has worked, and Patrice becomes increasingly frustrated and disappointed in herself for her seeming lack of will power.

Sound familiar?

If you’ve ever been in a situation where success continues to elude you despite your best efforts, look inward. After exploring her thought patterns with her coach, Patrice realized that when driving home she thinks about how hard her day was and how much she deserves a reward. Of course, every day is difficult and stressful so the “just this once” reward turns into a daily occurrence. The thought “I deserve a sweet treat as a reward for my hard day” leads to her sweet-snacking behavior.

Ah ha! But, what to do about it?

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

This is where cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)1 approaches come in.

CBT is based on pioneering psychological discoveries made by Albert Ellis and Aaron T. Beck in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s based on the assumption that our thoughts and perceptions about the world are the biggest determinants of our behavior. The notion that outcomes in life are under the control of thought, rather than external forces, can be a radical paradigm shift. Cognitive behavioral approaches have been found to produce significant benefits in conditions ranging from depression and anxiety2,3 to back pain4, fibromyalgia5, weight loss6, and smoking cessation7. In cases of depression, some studies have found that CBT is as effective as medication.

CBT works by breaking the event-thought-behavior pattern into ABCs.

A is the Activating Event. It’s the situation that jump-starts the whole process. In Patrice’s case, her stressful day was the activating event.

B is for Belief. It’s the thought you have about the event that leads to the behavior. Patrice believed she needed a reward for getting through her day.

C is for Consequence. It’s the outcome of your thought process. For Patrice, the consequence of believing she needed a reward was to eat a sweet treat after work.

Breaking the pattern

The good news for Patrice and the rest of us is we have control over our thoughts.

Once you’ve identified your capital-B Belief, you have the ability to examine it and decide if it’s logical. If it’s not, you can choose to believe something else, which in turn changes your capital-C Consequence. You can change your behavior by changing the way you think.

Patrice realized eating a sweet treat didn’t address her stress from her day in the long run. Sure, she felt better for a few minutes, but then the health impact of the snacking stressed her out even more.

Patrice and her Arivale Coach brainstormed some alternative Beliefs that could stem from her stressful day. Patrice landed on the idea of self-care­–since that’s what her regular treats were trying to get at anyway–and realized she could take care of herself without the sweets.

She and her coach brainstormed self-care practices that were more in line with her wellness goals. Patrice realized walking was very relaxing for her, especially if she could talk to her sister on the phone at the same time. She also found she could take a relaxing bath, read a book, or drink a cup of tea for a similar impact.

Success with new beliefs

Armed with this new Belief, Patrice found most days she was able to resist the evening snack. She still struggled from time to time but found it got easier to steer herself away from the “reward” thought process the more she practiced. It’s normal to feel skeptical of new beliefs initially, but as time went on, Patrice could see the positive impact on her energy levels and body, and that made it easier to believe deep-down that self-care was better than sweet snacks.

If the behavior you’d like to change is the Consequence, then work backwards to discover the Belief and Activating event that led you there. What Belief do you need to change in order to make progress towards your wellness goals?

* Note: “Patrice” is not a single person but rather is based on a number of real Arivale members.

Further reading

References

  1. Neenan, M. (2008). From Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to Cognitive Behaviour Coaching (CBC). Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy,26(1), 3-15. doi:10.1007/s10942-007-0073-2
  2. Driessen, Ellen; Hollon, Steven D. (2010). “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Mood Disorders: Efficacy, Moderators and Mediators”Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 33 (3): 537–55.  PMID 20599132
  3. Otte, C (2011). “Cognitive behavioral therapy in anxiety disorders: Current state of the evidence”. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience. 13 (4): 413–21. PMID 22275847
  4. Gatchel, Robert J.; Rollings, Kathryn H. (2008). “Evidence-informed management of chronic low back pain with cognitive behavioral therapy”The Spine Journal. 8 (1): 40-4.  PMID 18164452.
  5. Hassett, Afton L.; Gevirtz, Richard N. (2009). “Nonpharmacologic Treatment for Fibromyalgia: Patient Education, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, Relaxation Techniques, and Complementary and Alternative Medicine”Rheumatic Disease Clinics of North America. 35(2): 393–407.
  6. Castelnuovo G, Pietrabissa G, Manzoni GM, Cattivelli R, Rossi A, Novelli M, Varallo G, Molinari E. Cognitive behavioral therapy to aid weight loss in obese patients: current perspectives. Psychol Res Behav Manag. 2017 Jun 6;10:165-173. PMID: 28652832
  7. McHugh, R. Kathryn; Hearon, Bridget A.; Otto, Michael W. (2010). “Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for Substance Use Disorders”Psychiatric Clinics of North America. 33 (3): 511–25.  PMID 20599130