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Does It Take a Tragedy to Trigger a Habit Change?

Can a tragedy make someone more willing to change?

Tragedy can stimulate motivation.

Does it take a tragedy to jump-start a habit change? Does a death, a disease, or a downfall--one of the "dreadful Ds"--have to occur for someone to think about changing a hurtful habit like smoking, over-drinking, procrastinating, or over-eating?

How to become more willing is the subject of this series of blogs. In this one, we'll muse about the role of tragedy in change. There is no doubt in my mind that a tragedy can open people up and make them more willing to change or at least to consider change.

Maybe I believe this because a tragedy in my own life jolted me out of the fog I had put myself in with my smoking habit. Of course when I was a smoker, we were all still a bit hazy about the dangers of cigarettes, thanks to the suppression of research about the harms of smoking and a bombardment of ads touting smoking's joys and benefits. ("More doctors choose Camels than any other brand!")

However, when my aunt died of lung cancer because she couldn't stop smoking, I could no longer deny how deadly my habit was. I made a vow to quit and did so within weeks of her funeral. I am not the only one who was inspired to change by tragic events. Many of my students report that they or a family member reversed a self-destructive course because of a loved one's death.

Ellis Wilson, "Funeral Procession"

Why would tragic events become a catalyst for change? In part, these events provide a person with vivid motivators--"I want to live," "I don't want to end up carrying around an oxygen tank," "I will not drink myself to death the way my father did." It can take a death, or a near-death experience, to realize just how much you want to live.

I only recently discovered a possible biological explanation for this sudden willingness to change. According to Stephen Johnson in Mind Wide Open, events that trigger strong emotional responses leave detailed memories in our brains. The strongest memories tend to be negative ones--memories of events that were frightening, infuriating, or...tragic. Evolutionary biologists believe that our brains do this to help us survive--"Remember this event! Avoid it from now on!" This is how powerful emotions can make us determined to change and to take action steps toward a better path.

So does this mean people need to "hit bottom" before they become willing to consider change? This idea, once an article of faith with many addictions professionals, has been challenged by research into new models of change, such as motivational interviewing (MI). Motivational interviewing seeks to help people activate their own internal motivation. In many cases, people with destructive habits or addictions can persuade themselves to change before they "bottom out."

Other people can thwart a tragedy with imagination. If you can imagine the tragic consequences of a harmful habit, you just might be able to avoid those consequences by transforming yourself. One of my students became willing to quit smoking after a vivid dream. In this dream, she was able to lift off the skin on her chest (as if it were a turtleneck sweater) and peer into her blackened, butt-littered lungs. This vision of tragedy spurred her to change--before a real tragedy could occur.

Did you ever experience a tragedy that made you willing to change?

Next: Can positive events open your mind to change?

Johnson, Stephen. Mind Wide Open (2004), NY: Scribner, p. 148 ff.

I am the author of Changepower! 37 Secrets to Habit Change Success (Routledge, 2009), reviewed here. For more insights, quotes, and stories about habit change, willpower, and motivation, please like my Facebook page and/or follow me on Twitter.

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