By Cathriona Murphy
Donna Nelan has an MA in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy and works for the HSE Drug & Alcohol Services as a specialised Behavioural Therapist for Adolescents as well as running her private practice here in Tralee where she works with adults and teams tailoring behavioural programmes for personal growth. She runs professional workshops on Mindset, goal-setting and self-care in the workplace.
When it comes to diets, lifestyle changes or general wellbeing, we all start out with the best of intentions. We stock the fridge, sign up to the latest gym package on offer and perhaps gaze longingly at new clothes online imagining what it would feel like to wear them. Who can blame us? In a world where society is driven more and more by the materialistic, the image focused and the desire for perfection, it would affect even the most secure amongst us. With TV programmes such as Love Island becoming more prevalent and creating a new genre of culture, it is difficult not to become disheartened when we feel like we don’t fit societal norms.
So why is it when we start these “new year new me” plans to we fall at the first hurdle or even a few weeks in? Is it a case of we simply don’t have the will power or does it run deeper? To find out I recently sat with Behavioural Therapist, Donna Nelan.
I asked Donna about the idea of will power, is there more to it than that?
“Yes if you think of willpower as the lens you view the world through, then most people are using what is causing the problem to try and solve the problem – in my experience most people do not lack the will or desire to achieve their goals. They also have powerful driving forces such as their family, children, careers etc. If will is desire and power is a driving force that propels you forward, then the person does not lack willpower. They are often quite successful in many areas of their lives. The only thing that is missing for them is the understanding of the emotional attachment they have to the behaviour and clear achievable goals to bring about change.
As humans we are programmed to seek pleasure and avoid pain, we are all designed to attach to what we find pleasurable. For example, sitting watching Love Island and wishing you had ‘that’ body might trigger insecurities which will create an urge to seek comfort and for us that is to fill our belly. So this creates a conflict between my desire for that love island body and my immediate want to feel better and I reach out for a takeaway or another glass of wine.
“Of course, coming from a behavioural point of view it comes down to your thoughts and your thought process, in essence what you are telling yourself is what you believe. For example, if when changing a behaviour your underlying belief is ‘this is hard’ ‘I’m missing out or I’m sacrificing a lot’ that mind-set cultivates ‘It’s not fair’ which then manifests a victim mind-set i.e. self-pity. Which leads to the Karpman’s triangle – being in a victim mind-set we have a perceived persecutor (your partner, boss, mother, father etc.), when you feel persecuted you seek to be rescued. Which is where we usually return to predictably rewarding behaviours such as food, alcohol, relationships anything that gives us an immediate reward.
We return to the unconscious cycle of being emotionally triggered, felling discomfort which creates an urge to seek relief. In essence our thoughts create our feelings and our feelings direct our actions”.
I asked Donna did she feel people should prioritize their mind-set and how it works before entering a lifestyle change?
Changing behaviour as an adult is a difficult process without professional guidance. With the right guidance you will learn the underlying attachment to the behaviour. All behaviour is intelligent as it was learned in situations where it was previously successful. However, there is often a mismatch between what was a successful defence mechanism at 14 years old and 34 years old but any behaviour that protected us we will attach to even when it becomes self-defeating. This is why it is important to have support in exploring the underlying attachment to behaviours and belief systems as this is the solutions to understanding how we experience the world and therefore react to it. So yes it is vital that in order to make changes we first must understand our belief systems and how they were formed.
When it comes to behaviour therapy I asked Donna is it available to everyone?
“Yes when an individual enters therapy the assessment process determines the treatment plan based on the individual’s immediate needs and long-term goals. Behaviour therapy is very much self-directed; I’m teaching the person to become their own therapist! People who are undertaking a behaviour change will Journal every day using guide sheets and we explore the person’s experience of daily living during the following session. Journaling brings the individual into a state of self-awareness that would previously have been unconscious. When the individual identifies the source of a belief or unhelpful thinking styles it’s often quite easy for them to ‘choose’ to respond to situations rather than reacting to them.
I also teach them mindfulness skills to improve emotional regulation, interpersonal effectiveness and distress tolerance. This empowers them to make considered solution focused decisions.
Finally, I asked Donna what tips she would give Connect Kerry readers looking to begin a lifestyle change?
“Firstly I would recommend getting professional support, be it a therapist or support group as you get access to knowledge, experience and accountability.
I would say look at all areas of your life, from family, friends, work, fun, home life, health and wellbeing etc. Score it on a scale from 1-10 and identify areas of unhappiness or where you feel you need improvement. This can help you identify goals needed in each area and create your road map to success. Your goals will be achieved with consistent practice over time. It’s not about achieving 100% all day every day, it’s about making the 1% change every day being realistic and consistent”.
For details on any of the above please contact Donna Nelan on 086 8949025.