Iris Mini: Behavior Change

“To change a habit, make a conscious decision, then act out the new behavior." - Maxwell Maltz

When it comes to coping with cancer, what we do, or our behaviors, can impact both how we feel and how we think. Similarly, what we think can impact how we feel and behave.

There are two kinds of behavioral change:

  • One-time behavior change can be used as a coping tool for thoughts or emotions that you want to soothe or shift in the moment. For example, interrupt anxious thoughts or emotions by doing something different in real time.

  • Sustained behavior change, or routine-creating change, is more complicated than one-time changes. Some common tips for health-related behavior changes for people with cancer include increasing exercise, making dietary changes, getting more sleep, and reaching out effectively for social support. Since these behaviors impact mood, the more we can develop and keep healthy routines, the more we can improve our distress.

How to Change and Sustain Health-Related Behaviors

  • Educate yourself with information from your medical team about benefits of these changes and special considerations for your cancer needs.

  • Be flexible about your thinking and expectations.

  • Aim for progress, not perfection.

  • Stay away from "all or nothing" thinking - either I am on the path to change or have fallen off and failed.

  • Know behaviors take time to develop, and they also take time to change.

  • Consider incremental changes and be specific about your goals.

  • Get social support.  

Each person has their own path to success. If something doesn't work for you, try to understand why and then pick another path that is closer to who you are or what is important to you. Each try is an experiment.

How Changing a Behavior Helps with Feeling in Control

  • “I can do something different.” In the face of cancer and loss of control around many aspects of your life, doing something you can control may feel especially important.

  • A cancer diagnosis can be an activating event for health behavior change, but it may also be deactivating.

  • What motivates people to change is based on what is important to that person (values), their history, and the level of fear they have about the consequences of the behavior they are trying to change.

Can you think of a time that you changed a behavior? What helped you get started and what kept you motivated to keep going?