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Activating Your “Prepare and Plan” Response – Willpower Tips Day 15 (of 21)

You might’ve heard of the Fight/Flight/Freeze Response. You probably haven’t heard of the “Prepare and Plan” Response.

Like the Fight/Flight/Freeze Response, the Prepare and Plan Response is an inbuilt response we all come equipped with thanks to evolution.

Whereas the Fight/Flight/Freeze Response is about reacting quickly in the face of possible immediate danger, the Prepare and Plan Response mobilizes the brain areas associated with long term, “big goal” orientated thinking.

You can activate your Prepare and Plan response in moments of low willpower by doing ultra slow breathing (4-6 breaths a minute) for a few minutes. You’ll need to practice this in advance of needing it.

If you can’t get your breathing down to 4-6 breaths a minutes, anything under 10 breaths minute is likely to help, so just get as close to 4-6 as you can.

You could do this and then go do a behavior that’s incompatible with giving in to your willpower temptation. For example, going outside to put the washing out rather than staying in the presence of binge food.


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Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Model of Perfectionism – Willpower Strategies Day 14.

Perfectionism is not the same thing as conscientiousness.

For example, in a recent study of older adults, perfectionism was both associated with increased risk of mortality whereas conscientiousness was associated with decreased risk of mortality (Fry & Debats, 2009).

Perfectionism often results in avoidant coping – leading to people being less contentiousness!

Perfectionism is not only a risk factor for developing psychological disorders like depression, anxiety and eating disorders, but it can also be a poor prognostic factor for treatment success (unless it is actually dealt with in treatment, which we can do).

Cognitive Behavioral (CBT) Model of Clinical Perfectionism

I thought I’d explain some of the psychological mechanisms involved in clinical perfectionism:

- The person’s self worth is often overly dependent on one area (e.g., Person’s self worth is almost solely dependent on academic success, career success, or shape/weight/eating).

- Perfectionists often have inflexible standards and dichotomous thinking (e.g., getting one B grade among many A grades feels like evidence of being a complete failure).

- When clinical perfectionists meet their standards, they typically reappraise the standards as having been insufficiently demanding (and therefore never feel good enough).

- When clinical perfectionists fail to meet their standards, they typically engage in self criticism rather than self compassion. We know from research studies that self criticism depletes willpower (hence a possible pathway from: higher perfectionism > higher self criticism > lower conscientiousness)

- Clinical perfectionists often use counterproductive safety behaviors that actually make their situation worse. For example, they may do some or all of the following:

- constantly compare their performance relative to others
- get stuck on details that don’t matter that much
- avoid objective performance feedback
- do excessive checking (which increases perceptions of possible danger and can impair memory).

(It’s common for people to do a combination of excessive checking/comparing and avoiding feedback. For example, sometimes excessively weighing self and sometimes avoiding weighing self).

- Clinical perfectionists sometimes avoid situations and tasks when they fear they might not be able to meet their own standards (this can result in missing out on opportunities or might create problems in their life or relationships).

Treatment for Perfectionism

- Treatment for perfectionism doesn’t necessarily involve reducing your own standards (e.g., a very capable student might still aim to get As) if the standards are attainable without causing distress or impairment.

It does typically involve:

- Reducing the extent to which self evaluation is exclusively based on meeting your own personal standards.

- Reducing the extent to which self esteem is based on only one or very few domains (e.g., work performance and weight/shape/eating) (Try some self help right now with this simple exercise).

- Helping the person reduce dichotomous thinking, selective attention, and other cognitive biases, and increase cognitive flexibility.

- Helping the person reduce self criticism.

- Helping the person learn how to resolve tension between goal striving and avoidance tendencies.

- Helping the person shift focus and effort away from unattainable goals.

- Experimenting with investing time & energy into goals that are not performance related.

- Doing behavioral experiments so that the person can see what it’s like to not use their current safety behaviors.

- Addressing underlying Assumptions & Negative Core Beliefs.

- Because perfectionism can get in the way of treatment for depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, it should typically be addressed early in treatment.

Book Recommendation (Available as a kindle ebook to read on your computer or kindle)

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Willpower Strategies – Day 13. How to Tolerate Uncomfortable Inner Experiences (Thoughts, Cravings, Physical Sensations, Emotions) Without Avoiding

Did you know that how long a person is willing to hold their breath for predicts how long they will persist with trying to give up smoking?

People often give up on a Willpower Goal to get rid of an uncomfortable inner experience (a thought, a craving, a physical sensation etc.).

Training your ability to tolerate uncomfortable inner experiences is likely to help you with your willpower goal.

Paradoxically, the best way to do this is often to learn to experience the uncomfortable inner experience more fully. Many people who I see for therapy struggle with “experiential avoidance,” meaning they do anything they can to try to inhibit, shut down, suppress, numb or push away uncomfortable inner experiences.

Different parts of the brain are involved in

a) processing the experience of something
b) evaluating the experience of it (creating stories about the experience of it, or relating the experience of it to past painful memories).

People who are regular meditators can more easily tolerate painful stimuli (whether it be physically or psychologically painful) because they have trained their brains to react by attending to their current inner experience in the moment. They do less of evaluating the experience (What does it mean about me that this is happening? What does it mean for my future that this is happening? Oh No this is just like those other times when this happened? What does this mean about the world that this is happening? What about the other people involved in this experience – Do they like me? Do I like them?). In contrast, they do more sensory processing.

These processing differences are evident from brain scans. When meditators are exposed to pain (like heat applied to their leg or very sad video clips), parts of the brain associated with current inner experience light up strongly (e.g., the insula) and parts of the brain associated with evaluation, the future and the past are less active (e.g., parts of the the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus).

You can watch an awesome talk about this, complete with pictures of brain scans below

If you want to start meditating, you can start with any of the free resources on my big list. Be aware that some of the benefits are not likely to occur until you have been practicing for at least a couple of months. If you watch the talk above, you’ll notice that it mentions a study of people who were only 4 days into becoming meditators and their brains reacted the same way as non-meditators vs. a study of people who had been doing daily meditation for 8 weeks who showed a pattern similar to experienced meditators.

People who have experienced depression will want to pay attention to the study at the end of the talk showing that people whose brains showed that they were starting to be able to react with their experiencing parts of the brain without much activation from their evaluating parts of the brain had the biggest reductions in their symptoms of depression.

If you are feeling impatient, you can try the following Acceptance and Commitment Therapy Techniques that are designed to be used in the moment you are experiencing something uncomfortable, so that you can learn to actively attend to it.

Urge Surfing mp3 – designed for using with cravings

Google Book Preview of a technique called Expansion. You’ll be able to read the full instructions using the preview. Go to the section called “The Four Steps of Expansion” which starts on page 101 and then use your down arrow key to read the next page (through to page 104).

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Free Guided Meditation Mp3 Downloads (Mindfulness, Lovingkindness, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Self-Compassion).

Self Compassion, Mindfulness and Lovingkindness

Dr Christopher Germer- author of mindful self compassion. (Around 20 free mp3s that include traditional mindfulness for beginners (body scan, mindfulness of breath, sounds etc.), lovingkindness and self-compassion infused practices).

Dr Kristen Neff author of Self Compassion – free meditation downloads

Walking Meditation – This isn’t an MP3, it’s just written instructions, but it’s super.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy

Urge Surfing for Addictive Behaviors Mp3 from Dr Sarah Bowen

Awareness Meditation – Good for beginners

Leaves on the Stream

Dr Dan Siegel – author of Mindsight.

Wheel of Awareness Practices for Neural Integration – free mp3s but you’ll need to put in an email address. There are three Wheel of Awareness practices, I like number 2.

Also see his awesome Healthy Mind Platter Diagram.

Jon Kabat Zinn – Mindfulness for Pain Relief

Available free via Spotify (US only) – Spotify Playlist

Jon Kabat Zinn is credited with bringing Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction into Western medicine/mainstream science in 1979.

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Willpower Tips Day 12 – Strategies for Responding to Self Sabotaging Thoughts

This post is designed as a followup to the thoughts we identified on Day 11

There are several different approaches that psychology PhDs recommend for responding to Self Sabotaging Thoughts.

There is also evidence that the techniques that work best for some people might actually make things worse for others. Therefore you need to experiment with what works best for you (But give it more than just a few tries).

Here’s one technique that I really like & that lots of clients have reported finding really helpful. It comes from a therapy called Acceptance and Commitment Therapy.

1. If any of the examples I listed in the Day 11 post rang true for you or better yet, prompted you to think of your own example, write the thought on a piece of paper and put it either in your pocket or in your shoe.

2. Walk around with the thought for a period of time. One of the sets of instructions for this technique recommends a week, but you might decide to do it for a day. (As long as you decide on the time period in advance, you can pick any time period).


You might notice that you remember the thought is there from time to time, you might see it when you take your shoe off, or feel the note in your shoe from time to time.

The idea is to experience:

having experiential contact with the thought + observer perspective and psychological distance.

You and the thought can exist together without you needing to get rid of the thought or acting on the thought.

Try it!

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