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Dr. Traci Stein Discusses Tools for Creating Positive Change

25 Apr

Happy Earth Day, and Happy Spring to all! I am grateful for Spring’s arrival for a number of reasons.  Spring provides us with a much-needed break from what has been a very long, cold winter in much of the country. Symbolically, Spring represents new life, growth and positive change on so many levels after having shed whatever Nature deemed necessary during Fall. It also ushers in longer, brighter days and a delight in being outside after the winter hibernation. Now, each tiny seedling sprouting forth from the earth invites us to appreciate the beauty and change all around us.

Spring also is a time for personal housekeeping and sprucing things up – both literally and metaphorically. Sometimes this means taking stock of where we are with regard to relationships, old patterns, our health, and how we spend the bulk of our time. We can then lovingly tend to what needs nurturing, prune what belongs in the past, and sow the seeds of the changes we desire.

Even before I approached Health Journeys about doing a program for changing habits, I had been taking stock of my life and asking myself what things I wanted to do differently. One of the first things that came to mind was reducing my dependence on coffee. Like most people, there is an amount of coffee I can consume that feels enjoyable, but beyond which I feel jittery, have trouble sleeping, or experience an upset stomach. I realized that part of me wanted to give up coffee altogether, but another part was worried about how I would sit with the loss of a “tool” to which I have both a physiological and emotional attachment. I knew it was important for me to become more intimately acquainted with my feelings about coffee, as well as my reasons for using it in the ways I did. Additionally, I wanted to gain more clarity about why a part of me hoped to change my consumption and what my new usage of this tool would ideally look like.

Things that were helpful for me were being more mindfully aware of my coffee routine – when I noticed a craving, to what extent I was even mentally present when I drank my first cup, and how I felt afterwards. Fairly soon I realized that coffee was something I associated with my morning “warm up” – part of my daily ritual of waking up, turning on the news, and chatting with my husband before work. So, it represented for me the gateway to giving myself permission to awaken slowly, connect interpersonally, and ease myself into my day. Of course, there was also the aroma – a powerful trigger and in a way, its own reward. Because I routinely add cocoa powder and cinnamon to my coffee, I very much looked forward to this “treat.” And one cup almost inevitably leads to another because I enjoy this process.

The part of me that associates the above with comfort and control over my mornings was not too excited about making any changes on the coffee front, even though another part had gotten tired of reflux, insomnia, and the idea of dependence on a substance, legal though it may be.

Although a more formal report on how to change habits is coming soon, in the meanwhile, here are a few things that helped me to change my relationship to coffee. I offer them in the hopes that these will be helpful to you as well.

  1. Set the goal that is right for you. Don’t worry about what someone else would do, or how they would do it, unless the person you are thinking of is particularly inspiring to you. Some people would think it’s silly for me to even think about reducing my consumption of coffee – which is pretty low by most standards.  Others would say I should never consume it again. I decided I wanted to be able to have coffee sometimes as long I didn’t feel I needed it to function. And I wanted to keep my maximum intake to less than two cups per day.
  2. Step back from the situation. In the moment, leaving an old tool behind, changing how we use it, or even taking a break from it may activate feelings of distress. When I gave myself a bit of mental distance from the issue, however, I remembered that having less or even no coffee would not kill me. Seriously.
  1. Breathe. Cravings are a temporary phenomenon that in the moment we can experience as catastrophic and permanent. But cravings come and go, just like clouds. We couldn’t hold onto them even if we wanted to. Breathing through them helps us ride cravings out.
  2. Change the routine. When I ran out of the coffee I really like, I picked up a cup from a local place. It tasted okay, but it didn’t taste the same as my typical beverage. It was therefore much easier for me to consume less of it. Similarly, I noticed that if I did not add the chocolate I had become very used to having in my morning Joe, it was much easier to consume less of it. These changes helped ease me into the larger change of having less, and sometimes avoiding coffee altogether.
  3. Be present for what’s in your present. Some days, I made myself a cup of green tea with mint. It was not the same beverage experience by any means, but it was an experience I could enjoy for what it is. I noticed, too, that unlike when I drank coffee, I felt more alert without feeling keyed up at all.
  4. Notice the rewards. For me, reducing my dependence on coffee was a meaningful change that I could be proud of. I also noticed a definite improvement in my sleep quality and digestion. The more I acknowledged these benefits, the greater the reinforcement for maintaining this change.

In addition to the above, there are, of course, other changes and adjustments I’d like to make, as I am sure many of you would. It’s completely normal to reevaluate how we do things and make adjustments from time to time. If you try the Creating Positive Change program, please let me know how you like it. Feel free to post a review, tell a friend, and most important, continue creating a life that is meaningful and rewarding for you.

Be well!

Traci Stein

Traci Stein, PhD, MPH, is a practicing psychotherapist and Columbia-trained
clinical psychologist, ASCH-certified in clinical hypnotherapy. She has combined integrative therapies, including hypnosis, with conventional medical and psychotherapy practice. Her passionate commitment to mind-body healing has spanned two decades.