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Mental Habits That Will Make Your Life Better

March 13, 2023

Developing positive mental habits helps maintain outward behavior change. KEY POINTS Make self-compassion a habit. Make being present with gratitude a habit. Make interoceptive awareness a habit. When we think about habit change, we often focus on behavioral habits like exercising more or quitting drinking. But, often, our mental habits make or break our behavioral […]

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Diana Hill, PhD, is a clinical psychologist, international trainer, and sought-out speaker on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) and compassion

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Developing positive mental habits helps maintain outward behavior change.

KEY POINTS

  • Make self-compassion a habit.
  • Make being present with gratitude a habit.
  • Make interoceptive awareness a habit.

When we think about habit change, we often focus on behavioral habits like exercising more or quitting drinking. But, often, our mental habits make or break our behavioral ones. If you are distracted and not present, it will be hard to deepen your relationships or reach your work goals. If you are self-critical, you might have difficulty maintaining your healthy eating plan when you get off track. Developing positive mental habits will jumpstart and help you maintain your outward behavior change.

Following are three mental habits that will make your life better:

1. Make self-compassion a habit.

You may think that being self-critical motivates you to change, but research shows quite the opposite is true. Self-criticism lowers your self-confidence and increases anxiety and depression, undermining your ability to take steps toward change. With self-compassion, you can take the energy you put into beating yourself up and put it toward making positive changes.

Self-compassion will benefit you because it

Self-compassion looks like this:

  • Staying on your side when you make a mistake or are having a hard time.
  • Asking yourself, “What do I need?” when feeling stressed and overwhelmed.
  • Reminding yourself that we are all imperfect, and you are not alone.

Having self-compassion doesn’t mean you are weak or passive. It’s quite an active process. As Kristen Neff (2021) describes in Fierce Self-Compassion, self-compassion is a balance of yin and yang—sometimes, self-compassion involves being tender, soft, and caring toward yourself. Other times it means standing up for yourself, saying no, and protecting against harm.

Here are three self-compassion habits you can do when triggered to be self-critical:

  1. Practice slow, soothing rhythm breathing (five counts in, five counts out) to regulate and soothe your nervous system.
  2. Locate what is painful in your body and turn toward it with warmth and softness. Imagine wrapping up your hurt with a blanket or hug.
  3. Use compassionate self-talk. Talk to yourself like you would a good friend or a child who is hurting:
    • “I am here for you. It’s OK.”
    • “It’s normal to make mistakes. You will learn and grow from this.”

2. Make being present with gratitude a habit.

We spend a lot of time thinking about events that are not happening now. We ruminate about the past, worry about the future, or zone out on our phones. Mind wandering is a habit loop that makes us less happy and satisfied. For example, in their classic study, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” Killingsworth and Gilbert used a phone app to contact participants at random moments during their waking hours and ask them three questions:

  1. How are you feeling right now?
  2. What are you doing right now?
  3. Are you thinking about something other than what you are currently doing?

A sampling of 5,000 people from 83 different countries showed that about 50 percent of the time, people’s minds wander to something other than what they are doing. Mind wandering to worry is especially problematic. Your worries rarely come true, and worrying is bad for your health and only makes you feel more keyed up and anxious.

Replace your mind-wandering or worry habit with being present. It is even better if you can focus on something you are grateful for in the present moment. When a group of students was asked to write about something they were grateful for for 10 weeks, they felt better and were more optimistic than students who wrote about daily irritations. Unexpectedly, they also exercised more and had fewer doctor’s visits compared to those focused on adverse events (Emmons and McCullough 2003)

Here’s how you can make getting present with gratitude a habit:

  • Put cues around your house to remind yourself to get present. For example, put a sticky note on your mirror that says “Be Here Now” or a bell on your phone that sounds every hour reminding you to take a breath and be present.
  • Develop a morning gratitude practice. When you first wake up, ask yourself, “What am I grateful for about today? What am I looking forward to?”
  • Express gratitude verbally to others. Make it a habit to express outward appreciation. Choose a person each day to express gratitude toward, be it your barista or your best friend.

3. Make interoceptive awareness a habit.

Your body sends signals that harbor essential information about your well-being, and like an extended mind, your body can guide you in what actions to take next (Murphy Paul, 2021). However, many of us have gotten used to ignoring these signals. When I spoke with Kimberley Wilson on The From Striving To Thriving Summit (2022), she said, “We think about our bodies as meat suits to carry our brains around in. We don’t really consider them as having a millennium of built-in wisdom.”

Interoceptive awareness is your ability to perceive the internal state of your body. You can learn to gently shift your attention to your body while staying present in the world around you. By keeping your attention flexible, you don’t have to get stuck in uncomfortable sensations or ignore them. When you have interoceptive awareness and can sense cues such as increased heart rate, hunger, tension, or tiredness, you can respond to them effectively.

Tuning in to your body helps you better regulate your emotions, effectively respond to your present moment experience, and adapt to stressful situations (Murphy Paul, 2021). Individuals who score higher on interoceptive awareness are better able to rebound from stress (Haase, 2019). Additionally, interoceptive awareness training may help recovery from an eating disorder and substance use (Lattimore et al., 2016; Price et al., 2019).

Learning to listen to your body helps you make better decisions. For example, stock traders with higher levels of interoceptive awareness (as measured by their awareness of their heartbeat) made more money (Kandasamy, 2016).

Replace your habit of ignoring your body’s cues with a habit of tuning in. Here are three things to try:

  • Practice appetite awareness. Rate your hunger and fullness on a scale from 0 to 10 before and after eating. Pay attention to the point of diminishing returns when you are no longer hungry and food tastes less satisfying. Eventually, with appetite awareness, your goal will be to begin eating at moderate hunger levels, stay mindful while eating, and stop eating at moderate fullness.
  • Open up to discomfort. Our instinct is to tense up and resist physical discomfort in our bodies. Try a new habit of turning toward and making space for physical discomfort when it shows up. Psychological research shows that accepting emotional and physical pain improves your mental health (Hayes, 2016). For example, when people with chronic pain willingly accept their physical discomfort, they have lower pain intensity, less anxiety and depression, and more hours of activity during the day, and their work is less impacted (McCracken, 1997).
  • Tune in to your body throughout the day with “one-eye-in.” Pick a few cues to remind you to tune in to your body. You can practice “one-eye-in” before starting a meal, before entering a meeting, or when you come home from work. Make it a habit to tune in regularly, and you will get to know your body’s signals better and begin to interpret them more accurately. Your body has a lot to offer you! Listen to it!

If you want to learn more mental habits that will make your life better, listen to Episode 50 of the Your Life in Process podcast.

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