Doctor teaches class on healthy habit change

Dr. Shelley Smith won’t cut you any slack on your New Year’s Resolution.

“There is a good chance you will mess up,” said Smith, physician who has taken the things she knows about the brain from her work with chronic pain patients, and expanded it to helping people develop strategies for changing habits to good ones, and reinforcing healthy behavior.

To quote the old Ringo Starr song, “It don’t come easy,” but developing good habits can happen via an understanding that we have ways of working with our own brain to choose and enhance positive habits.

“It’s essentially changing bad habits to healthy ones,” Smith said. She turns to a sports analogy: say you are a basketball player and your free throws aren’t falling. You would analyze what it is in your technique that is not working, and try to make a change.

“Habits have structure; they have building blocks,” she said.

Want to learn more about the subject, directly from Smith?

She will teach her “Successful Habit Change” at Providence Hood River Memorial Hospital, where she works, 7 p.m. on Jan. 23. (The class has been postponed one week from an earlier announcement.)

Contact communityed.org to sign up for the class, which costs $25.

The key is to look at the whole process and make a strategy. Each individual’s strategy is going to be different for creating healthy habits.

In her class, she asks participants to fill out a work sheet and identify one habit to change, and ideas for how to do so.

“That way, you can come up with an approach.”

Smith explained that habits are understandable, and change is do-able. Attendees will learn ways to create successful change by learning how habits are formed.

“The more one recognizes the triggers and rewards that hold these routines in place, the better one can be prepared to change them.

“The future may be hidden in your daily routine,” she said.

“Ninety percent of our behavior is based on habits. What we eat, whether we exercise, how we organize our day, our home and our finances — all have great impact on our health and our lives.

Shelley Smith, aka Michelle, is trained in the Interactive Guided Imagery technique, which uses powerful connections between the mind and body to create a sense of calm. She has worked with chronic pain patients for the past year-and-a-half, following 15 years in Occupational Medicine with Providence Health System.

Smith’s expertise on habits and how to change or mold them stems from the increased recent understanding among medical professionals have about how the brain functions

“The brain runs the whole pain system of the body,” she said.

“The brain has the tendency to do the same things over and over, which can be helpful,” she said, pointing to how it helps us in functions such as driving.

The brain also controls our will power and the body’s ability to monitor and inhibit certain behaviors

But it happens that without warning our willpower is exhausted and “you find yourself in front of the fridge when you had not intended to.

“Knowing that’s what’s coming, and what are you going to do about it, that’s the preparation and strategy.”

Which brings us to that hard part, the messing up.

“Failure is part of life,” Smith said. “The question is, ‘What will you do if you fail?’”

You can give up or treat it as an opportunity for learning, she said.

The medical term for it is “Development of growth orientation,” Smith said.

To return to the sports analogy: “You do a post-game review and ask, ‘What else can I do?’”

Also, when you try to make a new habit, it’s not going to go completely smoothly, according to Smith.

That’s why it is important to choose to make one change at a time, and focus on it.

When failure happens, “put a little distance from the failure so you can look at it objectively.”

Avoid self-blame, Smith said.

“How do you talk with yourself? What do you do to not give up at that point?”

It’s important to remember that experiencing a successful strategy can lend itself to employing it again.

“We encourage people to take on one habit at a time, and then you now what has worked for you,” she said.

Nutrition, smoking cessation and increased exercise are among the top habit-changes people look at this time of year. What can work for chronic pain patients — regular relaxation techniques — is not a bad start for anyone wanting to focus on successful habit change.

“It’s helpful to get into the habit of doing one of these,” she said.

For those with chronic pain that inhibits their mobility and energy to go out and socialize, Smith encourages doing at least one thing you have always enjoyed, each week or every few days. Something that puts you in contact with other people.

“The brain needs those things, such as conversation and hobbies,” Smith said.

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