This is the year. You know it. You can feel it in your bones. The new year is time for change. It’s time to stop smoking/quit drinking/stay off junk food. You make the right adjustments to your bad habits and start new good ones. And then, without warning, you fall back into old ways. Breathe. You can recover from a relapse.
The late G. Alan Marlatt, one of the leading relapse prevention experts, told Time Magazine that falling off the wagon isn’t inherently bad; in fact, it’s almost inevitable in someone who is trying to change problematic behaviour. However, whether you will successfully battle it or not depends on the person’s reaction to this relapse. Still, the most important thing to remember is this:
One mistake doesn’t make a relapse. Continued negative behaviour is a relapse.
Remind Yourself, It’s Not A Lack Of Willpower
All too often, this momentary lapse of reason is taken by the person as a bigger flaw. For instance, after successfully not smoking for 60 days, you might end up having one cigarette. That’s a small misstep. But most quitters see it as an inherent lack of willpower or some such deeply rooted problem within themselves, and quit quitting. That’s the real mistake, not having one cigarette.
The biggest trigger for relapse is negative emotional states. That’s very consistent with the Buddhist concept called “double dukkha.” Dukkha is suffering. You can’t prevent or avoid certain painful experiences, but when you add on the lament, “Oh, there I go again,” you feel even worse. You double the dukkha.
It helps to attune your mindset to a more positive way of looking at things. Instead of focusing on the one relapse, focus on the number of days you successfully kept going. In fact, it’s rare to have just one relapse, so looking at a chart of previous successes can immediately tell you that you have the willpower to do this; once that’s out of the way, it’s just a matter of acknowledging a mistake, learning from it, and getting back to the good habit.
Use apps to chart your progress. It’s similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s “Don’t Break The Chain” productivity method, except you don’t punish yourself for breaking a chain. Android users can try out Days Since (Free), an app that tracks how many days it has been since you last did something. Just seeing a large number next to “Days since last cigarette” can be the motivation you need to start over when you smoke one in a weak moment.
Days Since also tracks the longest, shortest, and average interval time between the recurrence of an event, letting you know just how long you can go and perhaps even telling you that this current relapse isn’t the worst you’ve done. For iOS users, Last Time ($1.99) is a similar app.
Surf Your Urges With Meditation
Marlatt believed in the merits of mindfulness meditation aiding your well-being. In an interview with the Inquiring Mind, he said that just because you are looking to change your behaviour does not mean you won’t feel the urges any more. But you need to realise that urges are like waves — they rise up and go down, and all you have to do is accept this phenomenon and let it pass. Like surfing, just ride with it, but don’t fall into the water.
To counter that, Marlatt developed a technique called S.O.B.E.R:
Stop doing what you are
Observe what you are feeling, the sensations and urges
Breathe and focus on your breath
Expand your awareness to realise what would happen if you gave in to the urge
The psychologist’s basic message is to realise your mistakes as one-off incidents; but if they’re repeating, you need to change your approach towards this new habit you are trying to form.
“It’s like trying to ride a bike,” says Marlatt. “You make mistakes and learn, and you don’t give up if you don’t immediately find your balance.” If the bicycle is missing a wheel or is otherwise broken, then it requires fixing — simply willing it to work is not going to help you ride.
We want to hear your success stories and your failure stories. Have you tried forming a good habit and failed? I know I have. Is there a successful resolution you can share? Let’s talk in the comments and learn from each other.