Coche, No Ordinary Life, Sept 2015


Subtitle: Anxiety of often a villain preventing needed health changes

Summary: Max battles stopping smoking and finds help with the anxiety that had prevented him from enjoying better health.  Four steps help him to create a healthy new start

                                                             Anxiety is the hand maiden of creativity.

                                                          T. S. Eliot 

“I know it’s not healthy. You would have to be illiterate not to know that smoking is dangerous!  I don’t need to hear from my wife that I am causing my own demise!” Max has been told that smoking is causing emphysema. He has stopped smoking six times for at least one month since 2003. Each time he stops, some life event stresses him so much he decides to smoke, “just for another week. The nicotine helps me feel more energetic than I am.”

I wondered aloud how much sleep he got each night but he was unwilling to engage about his health. “Say what you want, nicotine is better than taking drugs!  At least I can buy cigarettes at the Wawa and I won’t get arrested.  Deeply defensive, Max was ready to take on anyone who reminded him that emphysema and smoking are a bad life choice.

“Max, can we discuss what happens to your good intentions when you promise yourself that you will stop smoking?  Maybe if we can understand the motivation that causes you to give up on your good intentions, we can help you hold onto the choices you want to keep. I have a set of steps we can work with to help you reach your goal. Are you game to try? 

“Guess so.  No other good choice really.”

“Max, many of us vow 20 daily treadmill minutes, no more little white lies, no more late starts….the list is endless.  But, like so many of us, you best intentions get lost in the noise of your family, your career and your life.  There is so much else on your plate that you avoid what you find too hard to do. It is hard to stop smoking and hard to manage the anxiety you feel when you don’t use a cigarette to calm your nerves. I have an idea of how we can help you push through resistance to change to create a healthier you. 

Max looked really interested so I continued” “The steps below help you see how you become immune to the very change you set as a goal. They help you dig underneath your defenses to the scary part of yourself and look at what makes you tick.  Let’ me coach you in some steps to meet your goal”. I gave Max pointers and he quickly responded in ways that could set healthy goals.

            First, let’s set a goal that is crucial to your health.  What feels important?  Max answered, “I need to give my lungs room to breathe and to stop smoking.”

Next, ask yourself what you NEED about the habit to feel like you.  “Coffee and a cigarette start my day and give me the boost I need to feel like me.” 

            Then, ask yourself how desperate you will feel if you give up the habit you want to change. Be brutally honest with yourself. “Every time I quit smoking before, I dreamt of it. I was desperate to go back.” 

Finally, ask yourself what drives your refusal to make a permanent change. “I need to get to work on time and the nicotine gives me the edge I need. I’m afraid I am addicted.” 

Max had done very good work uncovering the motivation behind his addiction to nicotine.  I asked if we could try just one day with no nicotine, then invited me to email to tell me how hard it was. Then I asked if he could change his assumption that the nicotine actually gets you to work, since you can get to work without it and, if want to give up smoking,  you need to feel certain that you can still get to work on time. 

Max found the exercise humbling and embarrassing.  It was hard for him to admit what was driving the bad habit.  But he found that getting underneath the habit to the assumptions that make it necessary to keep that habit, enabled him to rethink the need for a cigarette to feel secure. It is very hard for him to give up smoking but, is it worth it?  Max tells me his lungs will thank him. And they will.

To Consider:Think of the most dangerous habit you have and admit how it helps you handle anxiety. Now imagine life without the habit. Decide to tackle the anxiety in better ways, alone or with professional help. Will you feel better if you do?  I bet you will.

To Read:  Robert Kegan, Ph.D. and Lisa Lahey, Ed.D. Immunity to Change. February 2009, Harvard Business School Press.



Norris Clark