WHITNEY CAIN, PHD

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positive coping: willpower v. habits

We know strategies like exercise and meditation are beneficial during tough times. (Click here for a previous post about positive coping strategies and transitions.)  If you are in the midst of a stressful time, it’s not too late to incorporate these activities into your repertoire, but it can be challenging. 

Incorporating positive coping strategies before a major stressor is easier.  So how do you add these into your already packed life? 

Nike advises “just do it,” but accessing, using, and maintaining such willpower is complicated.  Willpower is limited by its dependence on glucose.  So, showing unusual patience with your mother-in-law makes it more likely you’ll snap at the kids.  Avoiding sweets at the office makes it harder not to raid the fridge at home. Yes, some people have more willpower than others, but nobody has limitless supplies.

Making behaviors habitual versus taxing willpower is a better bet.  Since habits are almost or totally unconscious, they require little thought, decision-making or willpower.  But we’re back to the question: how do you add habits into your already packed life?  Gretchen Rubin has insight based on her “four tendencies.” These link to our responses to expectations and the ways we build habits. (Click here for the “Four Tendencies Quiz”.) 

Rubin’s upholders probably wrote Nike’s slogan. They readily respond to their own and others’ expectations. Upholders deciding they should drink less alcohol just drink less alcohol.  Upholders told they should meditate just meditate. 

“Why should I just do it?”  This could be Nike’s revised slogan for questioners.  Questioners need information.  Convincing a questioner to eat out less means discussing the economic and health benefits of home cooking.  Get your questioner to schedule date nights by sharing research on the importance of fun and connection for healthy romantic relationships.

“I’m not just doing it.  So there.”  That could be Nike’s slogan for Rubin’s rebels.  Rebels resist expectations, whether imposed by self or others. Rebels need to believe behaviors and habits are of their own choosing, on their own time.

Obliger’s interpret Nike’s slogan as “I’ll just do it – for you.” Obligers are reliable for others, but not always for themselves.  Outer accountability is key for their habit formation.  Book clubs help obligers read more.  Obligers seeking more physical activity should enlist exercise buddies.

If there are positive strategies that could enhance your life generally and your coping specifically, make them habits so they are routinized when tough times come.  Ironically, these healthy habits often translate into self-care and self-care gives you extra juice for your willpower reservoir.  Use that extra juice for non-habitual behaviors requiring Nike’s approach.

References & Resources

Gretchen Rubin's website:  http://gretchenrubin.com/about/

Whitney Cain