“When a snake is shedding its skin, it doesn’t think to itself, ‘Wow, I’m transforming.’ It thinks, ‘Holy [bleep]. I’m exploding.’”
A student said this recently to Kelly McGonigal, a Stanford University health psychologist and national lecturer on “science help.” And McGonigal thought it well summarized the discomfort we experience when trying to make a change.
We don’t like the process of transformation—we find it stressful—but, generally speaking, it’s good for us, she told the packed house in her keynote talk at the opening session of the ASHA 2015 Convention in Denver. McGonigal’s talk on the positives of change dovetails with this year’s convention theme of “Changing minds. Changing lives. Leading the way”—introduced by convention co-chairs Julie Noel and Jeanane Ferre before McGonigal hit the stage.
The winning strategy for positive transformation, said McGonigal, is to constantly refocus on “why” we want to make the change. That’s how we stick with the change, and see it through, instead of running from it—a process backed by an emerging area of brain research on what sustains positive behavior.
Take the example of trying to quit smoking. When a person seeking to kick the habit can’t indulge the craving, the result is distress. Typically, the person’s first instinct is to give in to the craving to stop the distress. But then the person’s goal of quitting is foiled.
So what’s the key to successfully quitting? Research suggests it’s to re-focus on the intent to stop smoking and the associated benefits, McGonigal said. That line of thinking conflicts with the craving and helps to counteract it. “So it’s practicing mindful acceptance and commitment to the change,” she said. “What happens is that actually changes the brain, and then the change gets easier to make.”
This same process applies to any change we seek to make or adapt to, whether it’s in our careers or other areas of our lives, said McGonigal. She, for example, employed it when working to overcome her fear of flying: She forced herself to take spinning classes. The classes make her feel locked in and breathless like she does when flying. But they helped her to face, and ultimately conquer, her fear.
And now, she said, “I’m even a certified spinning instructor.”
Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader.