Mind & Body

Have a Health Epiphany

Whether you want to swear off sugar or shake up your social life, here’s your guide to making positive changes stick.
Have a Health Epiphany
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Teresa Zalewski scrolled down her Facebook news feed, and amidst the usual vacation photos and cat memes was a post that forever changed her life. Danny, a friend from high school who played baseball and loved to fish, had died from an undiagnosed heart defect just days shy of his 24th birthday. Her mind reeled. Zalewski, now 30, stepped onto her back stoop to collect herself and have a smoke. But in that moment, the cigarette—which had been a source of diversion, comfort and a quick buzz of energy for a decade— repulsed her. She thought of Danny, who ate healthy food and exercised avidly but had been born with a damaged aorta. She couldn’t imagine inhaling smoke that would, she knew, damage her heart. That was Dec. 10, 2008. Zalewski hasn’t touched a cigarette since. Zalewski had tried to quit on and of since college, but her resolve always dissipated and there she’d be again—puf, puf. Sure, nicotine addiction played an undeniable role in her relapses, but researchers have discovered that inertia is a major factor in getting us stuck doing the things we don’t want to do. But like Zalewski, you can unstick yourself. We’ll show you exactly how!

Step 1: Find the Right Motivation
Chances are you’ve thought about kicking your jelly bean addiction or internet shopping compulsion oh, about a million times. Good news: those months and even years of stagnation weren’t fruitless; they were laying the psychological groundwork for change, says Carlo DiClemente, Ph.D., professor of psychology at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. “Reframe it as, ‘I was putting a lot of reasons in my bucket, and now the bucket is full, so I’m ready to move on and go forward.’” Identify what prompted each half-hearted vow. Let’s say you thought about getting back in shape while you were playing Frisbee with your kid, during your last physical and when trying on dresses for a friend’s wedding. Each situation reflects a different motivation, like wanting to keep up with your 6-year-old, fearing your doctor’s finger-wagging and picturing yourself turning heads in a svelte little sundress. List every underlying motive, even if you’ve taken zero actions toward your goal. Now, review the myriad motivations and underline those that are intrinsic—that is, come from you and not from avoiding punishment (your doctor’s tsk-tsking) or seeking a reward (fellow wedding attendees’ compliments). Goals that come from within—e.g., wanting to play freeze tag without getting winded—are the surest route out of a rut. The reason: “By nature, we thrive when we work toward self-chosen goals,” says Frank Martela, Ph.D., a visiting scholar at the University of Rochester in New York. “If your motivation comes from the media telling you to be thinner or quit smoking, for example, part of you doesn’t want to do it.” So you won’t. Among the reasons for change you listed, copy the ones that align with your values (rather than outside messages) onto stickies and post them around the house, or type them into ohdontforget.com to be texted to you throughout the coming weeks. Reminders that you want to be able to feel strong, start a family someday or finally love your body will push you to take the plunge, DiClemente says.