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3 Steps to New Habits by Joan R. Landes, M.A., AMHC

A wise person once said, “We make our habits, then our habits make us.” So we set goals and make resolutions, but our good intentions and resolutions often end in disappointment. Isn’t there an easier way to create a good habits? The answer is “Yes!”

In three simple steps, a new habit can be formed in just a few days.
1. Anchor your goal to an existing habit
2. Start small with an easy behavior
3. Validate your efforts

First, use an existing behavior as an anchor for your new habit. For instance, if you wish to develop a habit of doing daily push-ups, and you already brush your teeth every morning, use brushing your teeth as your prompt for your new habit. After you finish brushing your teeth, begin to do the pushups.

Second, start with something ridiculously easy like one push-up. Or, if your goal is flossing your teeth, start with flossing just one tooth. While you do the behavior consciously tell yourself that you enjoy the activity: “I like the way my muscles feel alive when I do push-ups!” or “My teeth feel great when I floss!”

Third, after you complete your small goal, validate your efforts aloud. It can be as simple as saying “Great job!” or “Awesome!” Saying it aloud is more powerful than just thinking the words, so don’t be shy. Throughout the day make sure to keep telling yourself you did great when you think of your goal. The great thing about this type of self-validation is that it doesn’t cost anything, it’s legal, non-fattening and immediate.

That’s it! After a few days, you will find yourself looking forward to engaging in the new behavior. Gradually, you can increase your small goal into a bigger one.

Since I try to practice what I preach to my clients, I have used this technique in my own life. My goal: Develop more upper body strength through morning push-ups. First, I thought of my existing morning habits and the first thing that came to mind was simple – opening my eyes! It’s hard to do push-ups while lying on a mattress, however, so I had to come up with another anchor habit. I chose to anchor my goal to my current habit of making my bed.

After tucking in the blankets and tossing the pillows on the duvet I dropped to the floor on my hands and toes for three standard push-ups followed by three modified push-ups (knee style!). I told myself, “This is very cool!” Easy, right?

Afterwards I said, “Awesome!” My sleeping husband pulled the bedspread and pillows off his face and called out, “What’s awesome down there?”
“I’m doing my morning push-ups, honey,” I told him.
“Good grief, all that grunting woke me up.”
“Wait till you feel my biceps,” I bragged.
“Keep working on it, Sweetie,” he said. “Someday you’ll find them.”

But it was too late. I couldn’t be discouraged because I had already validated myself and was looking forward to the next session! I haven’t missed a day since before Christmas, and the really cool part is that I don’t dread exercising. Hey, don’t mess with success, right? As my son who is a cadet at the military academy at West Point said, “Not bad for a 50-year old, Mom.”

“Fifty-one,” I said. I want every kudo I can get!

About the Author: Joan Landes is a therapist at the Center for Couples and Families. She feels that therapy should be an adventure for her clients and (gasp!) actually fun. Joan loves learning the latest neuroscience underpinning human resilience and is enthusiastic about skill development in her clients. She has been married for 32 years and is the mother of 7 children who make this world a better place.

Your Mental Health Check Up by Dr. Matt Brown, Ph.D, LMFT-S

Over the past several decades, we have experienced increasing awareness of health concerns and how they impact our lives. We are frequently inundated with information from empirical studies, reality TV, and our own lived experiences; all exposing us to the dangers and benefits of taking care of ourselves. It can be overwhelming to sift through all the things you should and should not be doing to achieve your optimal well-being. Fortunately, research is increasingly identifying areas of our lives that have the biggest impact on overall mental health. And just like your Primary Care Provider is able to conduct a regular physical exam focused on key indicators of health, this article will allow you to check in with yourself using key areas of mental health. We will focus on your relationships, stress, and mindset.

Relationships

It is now well established that social relationships have an important impact on our mental health. In fact, our relationships are the single biggest predictor of our happiness. Recent research has shown that both relationship quantity and quality affect our mental health in positive and negative ways. When considering your own mental health, you may want to ask yourself how much time you are spending with those people who are important to you (quantity) and what that time looks like (quality). Are you being selective in your obligations, prioritizing time with family and friends? When you are with your loved ones, do you make intentional effort to connect through conversation or activities? If you find yourself lacking in this area, find ways to respectfully say no to those things that take you away from relationships and make the effort to connect when you are with those people you care about.

Stress

Research has shown that stress itself is not the culprit of mental health problems; rather, it is the reactions we have to daily stressors that contribute to

problems like depression and anxiety. How do you handle these daily stressors? Do you find yourself becoming emotionally or mentally flooded when confronted with seemingly small challenges? You may need to step back and take a look at how you are handling stress. The list of ways to better handle stress is too lengthy for this article, but it includes several things you might expect (e.g., exercise, deep breathing, meditation, etc.). Something else you might try is laughing. Laughter has been shown to have multiple health benefits, including boosting immune system functioning, physiological relaxation, and reduction of pain and stress. Find time to exercise your sense of humor!

Mindset

Perhaps due to our social nature, we often compare ourselves to those around us. While there may be some benefits to this behavior (e.g., making positive changes to emulate those we admire), we need to guard against the tendency to focus on how we fall short when compared to others. Focusing on what we are lacking often leads to self-interested behaviors aimed at keeping up with the Jones’ in an attempt to measure up. The problem is that this does not lead to our intended outcome and has been shown to negatively impact mental health. Conversely, focusing on giving of ourselves has the opposite effect. For example, several studies have shown that when it comes to money, we report more satisfaction spending it on others rather than ourselves. We also find deep meaning and purpose when we are engaged in meeting the needs of others. Similarly, and ever-growing body of research has shown that focusing on what we do have and expressing gratitude is linked to positive mental health. When was the last time you gave of yourself to better someone else’s life? How often do you take time to reflect on those things for which you are grateful? If your answers reflect a need to rededicate yourself, you might start by developing a regular time to reflect, write, or talk about what you are grateful for. Opportunities to serve others are everywhere, and we often find the hardest part is not having enough time. You may start small by finding ways to serve those closest to you in small but meaningful ways.

Now What?

Hopefully, you have had some time to reflect on areas where you are doing well and some areas where your efforts could lead to increased well-being. As with any positive change we make, something is always better than nothing. No matter how small your change efforts, you are moving in the right direction. Motivation increases as we act and you can create positive feedback loops that lead to improved mental health.

mattAbout the Author: Dr. Matt Brown is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. He holds a doctorate degree from Texas Tech University and a master’s degree from Brigham Young University. He is currently Assistant Professor and Program Director in the Marriage and Family Therapy program at the University of Houston-Clear Lake and a therapist at the South Shore Center for Couples and Families.

Birds and Bees (Sexting) and Smartphones by Dr. Jeff Temple

Cover 2Adolescence is often described as a period of storm and stress – where children begin separating from parents, establishing their own identities, and discovering their sexuality. This development into junior adulthood coincides with myriad hormonal, physical, and emotional changes. In short, adolescence is difficult, overwhelming, and taxing. The fact that most kids make it through this critically important developmental period to be better human beings than when they entered is remarkable.

The fact that parents of adolescents make it through this period is nothing short of miraculous. And as if this period wasn’t hard enough, we now have to deal with smartphones – at the dinner table, on vacation, while they’re sleeping. Now we worry about cyberbullying, online predators, hundreds of dollars of in-app purchases from Clash of Clans to…SEXTING.

Sexting is defined as sending or receiving sexually explicit messages or images/video via electronic means (usually phones). My team at the University of Texas Medical Branch published some of the first studies on this relatively new behavior. While research in this area is still new, we and others have consistently shown that teen sexting is common and that it is often associated with real life sexual behavior.

Between 15% and 30% of adolescents have participated in sexting, with higher rates reported by older adolescents or when the sext is limited to just messages (no images). In my study of nearly 1000 teens, 28% of boys and 28% of girls had sent a naked picture of themselves to another teen. Nearly 70% of girls had been asked to send a naked picture.

Like all studies published on the topic, my research also shows that teens who sext are substantially more likely to be sexually active. Indeed, in a study published in the journal Pediatrics, my colleague and I recently found that teens who sexted were more likely to be sexually active over the next year, regardless of prior sexual history.

RF2_1734These statistics will alarm any parent. But should they? The short answer is “maybe.”

Let me begin by saying that I don’t want my kids sexting. That being said, most sexts are harmless in that they are seen only by the intended recipient and not the entire school, they do not end up on the internet, and they do not land the teen in jail. “Normal,” well-behaved kids sext, and accumulating evidence suggests that, when not coerced, sexting is not likely to have psychological consequences.

Furthermore, more teens are having real sex than are sexting. Thus, our priority should be promoting healthy relationships and teaching teens evidence-based and comprehensive sex education. Sexting education should be a part of this, but not at the expense of valuable information on the importance of delaying sex, and the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections.

However, sexting can have disastrous consequences. So what should we do? Most importantly, we should talk to our kids and we should do so in a fully informed and honest manner. Approach this like you would a conversation about something as mundane as seatbelts. You probably would not tell your children that if they don’t wear their seatbelt they will likely die the next time they drive. You would probably say something like, “You’ll probably be fine if you choose to not wear a seat belt, but ‘what if?’” or “It only takes one time.” Similarly, we should not tell teens that their future is ruined if they sext. Instead, we can say, What if it does end up on the internet; what if someone forwards it to your teachers; what if your coach finds out; what if the college you’re applying for learns of this?” Adolescents are impulsive and moody and irritable and weird; but they are smart. We should treat them as such.

But what do I know? I have a 12 year old at home who knows everything and thinks I’m stupid. Wish me luck.

Jeff Temple[1]About the Author: Dr. Temple, a licensed clinical psychologist, completed his undergraduate degree at the University ofTexas-San Antonio and his Ph.D. at the University of North Texas. In 2007, he completed a postdoctoral research fellowship at Brown Medical School. Dr.Temple is an Associate Professor and Director of Behavioral Health and Research in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at UTMB Galveston. He is a nationally recognized expert in interpersonal relationships, with a focus on intimate partner violence.

Health & Wellness by Dr. Spencer Scoville, DO

Vegetables‘Health and Wellness’

What can we do to improve our health & wellness? I think this is a great question for the New Year or any time of the year. We spend the majority of our time focused on work, family, church and community responsibilities. We get our kids to school and all their activities. We race to the Doctor when we are sick. We try to lose weight when our pant size increases or exercise a little when we see our muscles sag. Many of us don’t spend a lot of time thinking about our health or wellness until we are in deeply in need of it.

I think it is useful for each of us to spend a little time defining what health and wellness is to ourselves. Benjamin Franklin in his early autobiography tracked qualities that he felt needed improvement. If we do not define what we want in our health, I see it difficult for us to achieve the health goals we desire.

I define health or life as movement. Think of the things you enjoy doing. Even if it is going to the movies, it is much easier to enjoy them if you are able to move yourself to get there. I love to run. I have a goal of being that 90 year old guy out running. I am almost 40 and already have quite a bit of gray hair—so I am already “that old guy” when I am running. I want to do everything I can to maintain my health or ability to move and do the things I love as I age.

I talk to people every day about health. Many of these people are sick and we focus on the specific health concern they have that day. It may be a sinus infection or a back ache or a well visit. With all of these visits, I have an overriding desire. It is to help them improve their health. The 2 things at the top of my list to talk about are quitting smoking and getting moving. If you don’t smoke, I can think of few things that will improve your health over the years as much as getting moving.

Athlete Running Through Finish LineGetting moving, statistically decreases our risk of death. It may be painful when we start to be more active, but movement generally helps us. Exercise helps us control our weight which is directly linked to all-cause mortality in multiple studies. In one study midlife running speed predicted cardiovascular health 30-40 years later. “Heart disease risk increases markedly for every minute longer it takes you to run a mile.” We will be healthier if we exercise consistently.

I often feel an improvement in my mood when I exercise. When I exercise, I am accomplishing something I understand to be good for me. So that thought, makes me feel better. I will often feel an elevation in my mood as I exert myself. I feel a little silly as I am pushing to finish a run and have a hard time suppressing a huge smile.
These studies and personal experience tell us that activity is good for us. I am not talking about drastic life changes that require spending hours at the gym. I am talking about thirty minutes of daily movement. This can be as simple as a daily brisk walk.

I recently read “The Power of Habit” by Charles Duhigg. He reports that most of what we do during the day requires no specific decision because it is a habit. I find that if we don’t have to decide in the moment then we can be more successful. Some people want to work-out for 1-2 hours twice a week. This is good, but I like the commitment to daily exercise and the routine that it creates more. If it is not a routine, it is too easy to stop
Many times unforeseen things can interfere with our goals, but having strived for to attain what we truly want with our health will provide benefit. Wellness is a combination of our physical and mental state that allows us to comfortably do the things we enjoy doing. One individual may love to run and they define success by their ability to keep running fast. Another may define it by their ability to play with their grandkids or go for a walk to the park. Let’s define what we want from our health and strive to get moving.

logoAbout the Author: Dr. Scoville is a Family Physician in Utah at the US Synthetic Clinic. He enjoys the outdoors, running, and cylcing.