By Beth Charbonneau
The look on my doctor’s face told me that she wasn’t kidding: I needed to get my elevated blood pressure down before it became a big problem. Like almost one-third of Prince George’s County residents, who also have high blood pressure, I was at risk for serious heart disease, stroke and more. I knew what I needed to do — increase my exercise, choose heart-healthy foods, and reduce salt and sugar — and I was motivated to make these changes. Having already attended classes at OrangeTheory Fitness in College Park, I knew I could improve my cardiovascular health by taking more classes there. MOM’s Organic Market was filled with fresh foods that I could use to cook more meals at home. I got a blood pressure monitor. In the first week of March 2020, I had a solid plan. We all know what happened after that.
I spent the rest of 2020 just trying to get by. As 2021 approached, though, I felt like I had the ability to really focus on my health. But simply knowing what I needed to do wasn’t going to be enough. Behavior change is incredibly hard, even when we have knowledge, facts and some motivation. As a psychotherapist, I am always focusing on how to help clients make changes. Motivation and willpower can often be limited, and may not be the only tools one needs to reach a goal. Because I was already chronically tired and stressed, I knew that “just do it” was not going to help me move forward.
Thankfully, I already knew a bit about the ways that changing habits can improve outcomes. There are steps to changing habits: Break big goals down into small steps and then into micro actions; work within some existing routines in your life. Still, making the necessary changes felt like a big, challenging project. I turned to a book for help: Tiny Habits: The Small Changes that Change Everything, by B.J. Fogg, a researcher with Stanford’s Behavior Design Lab. Fogg’s book includes a wealth of information on how to create processes that promote change.
With the aid of Fogg’s book, I realized that I was missing one critical piece in my plan: how to use emotion to help change my behavior. Our brains love it when we feel good about something, and they always want to get more of that feeling. I realized that if I actively celebrated all of my tiny steps towards change, my brain would respond by encouraging that flow of positive emotion. I’d create my own positive feedback loop, and my chances of successfully changing habits would go up. Some of Fogg’s ideas sounded silly at first: celebrating a tiny, one-minute behavior — like taking my blood pressure in the morning — and doing a victory dance for myself. But I was willing to experiment, because the brain and behavior science behind Fogg’s suggestions were solid, and I really wanted to prevent heart disease and stroke.
I’m looking forward to sharing this one idea from Fogg’s book — genuinely celebrating the small actions we can take as we work towards bigger goals — with my clients, with the hope that they, too can learn to create happier and healthier lives. If you see someone clapping for themselves after finishing a loop around Lake Artemesia, that might be me. You should give yourself a hand, as well, anytime you get out there and take care of yourself. Small steps lead to big journeys, if we just keep going.