How do we allow ourselves to enter the zone of compassion, and what holds us back from going there? How do we keep our “coherent sense of self” that Erik Erikson talked about intact when we connect with the ‘other’? (Allow me to use the term ‘other’ to refer to a person or persons, clients, or otherwise throughout this piece.).
“Compassionate detachment is respecting our client’s power enough to not rescue them while extending loving compassion to them in the present moment. Simultaneously compassionate detachment is also respecting ourselves enough to not take the client’s challenges on as our own and realizing that to do so serves good purpose for no one.”
The more I consider this subject though, the deeper it is. There is almost a myth in our thinking about compassion that some people buy into – that entering the zone of compassion is not safe. The danger is to feel too much, to connect too completely with the feelings of the other. It is a myth because it does not have to be true.
My Own Compassionate Center
When I am feeling secure in myself, grounded in who I am, more centered in my life, physically and emotionally, I am more able to be compassionate. When I am not, does it feel like I have more to protect? Will connecting with the other appear like a threat to what I have left? So, to access my compassion, to enter that Zone of Compassion, one of the best things I can do is be compassionate with myself and regularly engage in self-care.
One thing that can hold us out of that Zone is the fear that the burden of the other will become too much for me to bear. The Zone of Compassion is joining the other person as an ally, not as a co-owner of the burden that person feels. Compassionate detachment allows us to be there with the other without taking on the burden with them.
Judgment Separates Us
Judgment can be a defense to avoid connecting with the feelings that know compassion. When we judge we instantly separate ourselves from the other person. We put distance between ourselves and them. We may shudder at the thought of being in the other’s predicament, in living a life like theirs, and so we pull back.
In health and wellness coaching it is often easy to spot the self-defeating behaviors that work against our client’s health and wellbeing. We then can quickly move to judge the person’s character, values, etc.
Making a distinction is not the same as making a judgment. We can distinguish between the person and the person’s behavior. We can distinguish between high-risk health behaviors and behaviors that enhance one’s health. The key is what do we do with our awareness in making that distinction. How do we communicate that awareness to the other?
Sharing an Observation
Trust your client to work with what you share with them. When we see someone engaging in some sort of self-defeating behavior, we might simply share what we are observing without judgment. “As you told me about your weekend, I noticed that you mentioned passing up opportunities to connect with others three times?” Such a sentence must be said without a tone that implies judgement. Judgement can slip into our conversation in very sneaky ways! Just share the observation and let your client work with it. If they don’t, refrain from pushing. The time may not be right to explore it. Remember, we are their ally, not their inquisitor.
Empathy as a Conduit of Compassion
Expressing empathic understanding allows the other to feel like they are not alone facing their burden. Empathy conducts connection which allows compassion to be felt.When empathy is transmitted well and received well, it is like there is an infusion of energy into the person receiving empathic understanding. They light up! And often lighten up. Empathy turns on a light that allows a person to often gain a new perspective very different from the one they experienced when they felt all alone in the darkness.
Far too often we reach for the fix-it tool instead of first connecting with the other through empathy. We really want to help, and we try to make things better.
“Because the truth is, rarely, can a response make things better. What makes things better is connection.” Brené Brown
A key to compassion is to imagine it like an image of two people together, standing, or sitting, side by side. If the person expressing compassion projects an image of being above the other, ‘helping’ them, the attempt at compassion will come across like sympathy, not empathy. Compassion is shoulder to shoulder, side by side, heart to heart.
Michael Arloski, Ph.D., PCC, NBC-HWC is CEO and Founder of Real Balance Global Wellness – a world leader in health and wellness coach training (https://realbalance.com/). Doctor Arloski is a pioneering architect of the field of health and wellness coaching. He and his company have trained thousands of coaches around the world.
We like to say that a coach listens to a person’s story and helps them to realize that they are not their story.
For the health-challenged client, their illness, conditions, or health experience is a huge part of their story. “I am a diabetic.” While this is true, how strongly does the person now see themselves through this lens? What effect could it have on someone’s confidence that they can regain their health? How hopeless do they feel if they have framed their health challenge like a prison sentence instead of a challenge to be overcome? How different it might be if the same person could say “I’m a person challenged by diabetes.”
Erik Erikson, the renowned developmental psychologist who coined the term ‘identity crisis’, viewed identity “as the degree to which an individual integrates different self-assets into a coherent sense of self, and such a coherent sense of self translates itself into daily life and guides choices and values.” (Oris, 2018) When we think about a sense of self-guiding choices and values and apply this to making lifestyle choices, illness identity could play a huge role.
What happens to that coherent sense of self when a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness? What happens when that person may not only label themselves according to their health challenge, but is labeled by treatment professionals and even friends and family?
“Although most patients succeed in adjusting to their illness, some patients experience difficulties, which can negatively affect their physical and psychosocial functioning.” (Morea, 2008) Much of that difficulty comes when a client has over-identified with their health challenge. As health & wellness coaches we know that attitudes and beliefs drive behavior. Each of our clients will react to their health challenge in their own unique way, but it may be very helpful for the coach to understand how these reactions or responses may be seen in terms of different dimensions or states of identification with the person’s illness.
Let’s look at keys to understanding and coaching strategy around client identification with their illness.
Key Number One: Understand the degree to which chronic illness dominates the client’s identity and daily life.
In 2016 an international team of scientists sought to understand this concept more deeply. Their work with adolescents dealing with Type One diabetes led this team to develop the Illness Identity Questionnaire and identify four illness identity dimensions or states: engulfment, (Oris, 2018) rejection, acceptance, and enrichment. (L.Oris, 2016)
Think of the term engulfment. Your client may be completely engulfed by their illness. “Individuals completely define themselves in terms of their illness, which invades all domains of life, at the expense of other important self-assets (Morea, 2008).” They may be experiencing continual physical reminders of their condition as symptoms of their illness manifest. If your client feels in the grip of such an illness, how hopeful are they? How disempowered do they feel that they can do anything about it? They may experience great fear that they will never get better. They may just not know what the future holds, but their illness has taken over their lives. It is quite likely that such a client may be in the Precontemplation Stage of Behavior Change when it comes to lifestyle improvement efforts.
Key Number Two: Meet your ‘engulfed’ client where they are at with compassionate understanding.
A client experiencing their illness this way may feel overwhelmed and helpless. The illness is so figural in their life that they seem to process their entire life through the filter of their health challenge. We want to convey sincere empathy but be prepared to have it either well or poorly received. Our client may feel like nobody else could understand what they are going through. Use your process coaching skills to help your client to work through some of the emotional load they are carrying. Slow down on setting up ‘what to do about it’ strategies. Your client is far from the Action Stage.
If your client has been stuck in this stage for months after their diagnosis or health event, consider what else might be going on. They could be experiencing some secondary gain. That is, they may be receiving some kind of reinforcing experience for staying stuck where they are. Family and others could be treating them with such extra kindness that it makes their overidentification rewarding. Be careful how you approach this subject as clients may feel accused and judged if you are too forthright about this. You might instead approach their situation from the angle of nurturing hope.
Part of what can increase hope is learning more about their illness and their prognosis and potentially what they can do about it. Inquire what they know about their health challenge. Share with them the information that patients who know more about their illness and treatments have better outcomes. Let them know that lifestyle improvement may not cure their illness, but it can significantly affect the course of that illness.
Key Number Three: Understand the Rejection Dimension of Illness Identification
While some clients embrace an identification with their illness others do their best to reject it as much as possible. “…rejection refers to the degree to which the chronic illness is rejected as part of one’s identity and is viewed as a threat or as being unacceptable to the self.” (L.Oris, 2016) This client avoids thinking or talking about their illness and they tend to neglect it, which results in poor treatment adherence. Their approach is one of denial and/or minimization. They attempt to go on with life and business as usual to the point where their biometric markers (e.g. blood sugar levels, blood pressure, etc.) worsen.
Attempting to persuade such a person to follow their doctor’s orders and begin improving their lifestyle will almost certainly go nowhere. If you are given the opportunity to coach such a person, instead take a holistic explorer approach. Have them tell you the story of life before their illness and what led up to their diagnosis. Ask them what the experience of hearing that diagnosis was like. Meet them with empathic understanding. Inquire about what it feels like they have lost. Often the experience of a loss of health is central to such a response to a life-threatening illness. (See my blog post “Astonishing Non-compliance – Understanding Grief and Readiness for Change in the Health Challenged Client”https://wp.me/pUi2y-n2)
This client may be the farthest away of all from the Action Stage and firmly entrenched in Precontemplation. Refer to Changing To Thrive, by Janice and James Prochaska (https://jprochaska.com/books/changing-to-thrive-book/) for extensive guidance on how to coach someone through the stage of Precontemplation.
Key Number Four: Coach the accepting client at a higher level of readiness to change
The acceptance dimension of illness identity shows a client who is not overwhelmed by their chronic illness, does not deny it, but rather accepts that this is their reality. “Chronic illness plays a peripheral role in one’s identity, besides other personal, relational, and social self-assets, and does not pervade all life domains.” (Morea, 2008) Such a client will be trying to lead as normal a life as possible without being in denial about their illness. They, to one degree or another, are finding ways to adapt to their illness.
Explore with this client their current level of knowledge about their illness and treatment. Inquire about the lifestyle prescription that their treatment team has recommended and how successful they have been at achieving those recommended lifestyle changes. Explore their motivation that fuels their desire to deal more successfully with their illness. Help them create a fully integrated Wellness Plan for how to move forward and affect the course of their illness in a positive way.
Key Number Five: Partner with the possibility of transformation
The fourth illness identity dimension, enrichment, provides the coach with a unique situation. Here the client has developed to where they frame their illness as an opportunity for growth and transformation. They see positive changes in themselves having taken place as a result of these negative developments in their health. “Such positive changes manifest themselves in different ways, including an increased appreciation for life, changed life priorities, increased personal strength, and more positive interpersonal relationships.” (Tedeschi, 2004) Coaching with a client who has reached this state of identity with their illness would be a delight. Here the focus might be more upon maintaining good self-care and treatment adherence, and possibly upon continued improvement in health. Such a client might be motivated to work on disease reversal through lifestyle improvement such as we see with programs like that of Dean Ornish. (https://www.ornish.com)
Content for the blog has come from Dr. Arloski’s forthcoming book Masterful Health & Wellness Coaching: Deepening Your Craft, published by Whole Person Associates, Inc., and is fully copyrighted.
L.Oris, J. S. (2016). Illness Identity in Adolescents and Emerging Adults With Type 1 Diabetes: Introducing the Illness Identity Questionnaire. Diabetes Care, 757-763. Morea, J. M. (2008). Conceptualizing and measuring illness self‐concept: 571 a comparison with self‐esteem and optimism in predicting fibromyalgia adjustment. Research in Nursing and Health, 563-575. Oris, L. L. (2018). Illness Identity in Adults with a Chronic Illness. Journal of Clinical Psychology Medical Settings, 429-440. Tedeschi, R. G. (2004). Posttraumatic growth: conceptual foundations and empirical 604 evidence. Psychological Inquiry, 1-18.
Michael Arloski, Ph.D., PCC, NBC-HWC is CEO and Founder of Real Balance Global Wellness (https://realbalance.com) a premier health & wellness coach training organization that has trained thousands of coaches around the world.
After years of building a foundation, health and wellness coaching has flourished in the last decade. At the beginning of this last decade the International Coach Federation was only fifteen years old and the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching hadn’t even been thought of yet. My book, Wellness Coaching for Lasting Lifestyle Change, had been on the market for only three years, and The Coaching Psychology Manual, for only one. Thousands of people were already trained and working as health and wellness coaches, but the numbers were nowhere near where they are today. Wellness coaching was being used by employee wellness programs, disease management and insurance companies but had not made its way into the clinical world much at all. There was considerable success where wellness coaching was being applied, but the research to back it up was lagging. As the decade moved along towards 2020, everything shifted. Health and wellness coaching has truly arrived!
In the last ten years we have seen the profession of health and wellness coaching grow both in its application and as a true profession with standards and credentialing. Early in 2010 the National Consortium for Credentialing Health & Wellness Coaches was formed to develop and establish those standards and a system of credentialing. After an untold number of hours of work by dedicated coaching professionals this evolved into the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching that we have today. Now, in addition to certification that coaches can receive by the organization that trained them, they can apply to become certified through the NBHWC by qualifying for and passing an examination administered by the National Board of Medical Examiners. Prospective coaches can now choose to be trained by qualified organizations that have earned approval by the National Board, ensuring great quality for their educational experience.
My observations over the past decade is that the growth of health and wellness coaching has particularly accelerated in three areas: universities, the international arena and clinical/lifestyle medicine. Let’s look at the role Real Balance Global Wellness has played in each.
Early in the decade only a handful of schools were offering programs that included health and wellness coaching. These were mostly schools of Integrative Health or related areas. Leaders such as The California Institute of Integral Studies, Duke University, and the University of Minnesota were such innovators. As more and more schools discovered that health and wellness coaching offered their students a practical skill set and a needed certification in the field, actual training in health and wellness coaching became highly desirable. Real Balance began to partner with schools of Public Health, Nursing, and a variety of programs to not only deliver direct training, but to train college and university faculty to become Real Balance Trainers and be able to deliver our curriculum and certification. Our program nurtures such schools along until they are ready to apply to the National Board to become an approved program in their own right.
As lifestyle diseases have replaced infectious disease as the number one cause of premature death, the value of health and wellness coaching is being increasingly recognized around the world. Interest is growing fast in Europe, Asia and Latin America. Real Balance truly became Real Balance GLOBAL Wellness in this last decade. We developed training programs in Ireland/UK, Brazil, Australia, and China. We delivered keynotes and programs in the Azores Islands of Portugal, and the Philippines. Students from around the globe continue to become trained as health and wellness coaches through our live webinar classes.
The third area of growth for health and wellness coaching that has ballooned especially in the last few years of our past decade is primary care/lifestyle medicine. The recognition that a large component of our health is behavioral has led to the greater openness to the role of health and wellness coaching in direct medical services. Health and wellness coaches are helping patients to be more successful at medical compliance/adherence, and at accomplishing the directives of the lifestyle prescription recommended by their treatment team. The tremendous growth and increasing acceptance of the principles of lifestyle medicine has helped health and wellness coaches to be seen as a very practical solution for the behavioral changes sought by physicians and other healthcare practitioners. The recent granting of a Level Three CPT Code for health and wellness coaching is a huge step forward. Though direct reimbursement is a ways off, the new code helps legitimize health and wellness coaching in the eyes of the medical world and opens doors.
Health and wellness coaching enters this new decade with an earned respect. We have the evidence of our effectiveness, solid professional credentialing and standards, international awareness, and a recognition that we can play a key role in improving health and wellbeing all around the world. Be a part of helping us take it forward!
Stress gets blamed for most everything, and much of time deserves the accusation (60 percent to 90 percent of health-care professional visits are stress-related – https://www.apa.org/monitor/2008/10/relaxation.aspx ). Wellness and health coaching clients inevitably recognize that excess stress in their lives is affecting their quality of life, performance at work, and their very health in negative ways. Finding a way to deal more effectively with stress becomes part of most client’s Wellness Plan.
Wellness coaches all too often approach stress by working with their clients to strategically attack the sources of stress in their client’s lives. While there may be some specific gains made by that approach, all too often the result is temporary and band-aid-like, as yet another source of stress emerges. Solution-seeking as a stress management strategy is like flirting with infinity.
For over twenty-five years I worked as a psychologist and devoted much of my focus to helping people with stress-related disorders. I was an early adopter of the use of biofeedback and relaxation training methods. Combining those modalities with psychotherapy, my work was able to be of great value to clients suffering from muscle-tension and migraine headaches, a wide variety of gastrointestinal disorders, insomnia, Raynaud’s Disease, and many more issues. I delivered hundreds of stress management workshops and became so involved in the field that I eventually became President of The Ohio Society For Behavioral Health and Biofeedback.
Both my clinical work and my years of coaching showed me that ‘managing stress’ requires the clinician or coach to understand the mechanisms of stress, its psychophysiology. I use the term psycho-physiology here because, perhaps nowhere else is there such a demonstration of how our thoughts and emotions have direct effect on our body. This is the center of the mind-body connection. Just thinking about taxes, a strained love relationship, a scary health condition, etc., can immediately result in an increase in blood pressure, the secretion of stomach acid, the constriction of blood vessels in our extremities, the release of cortisol into our bloodstream, and more. Understanding the psychophysiology of stress is vital to being able to develop coaching approaches that will allow our clients to recognize stress, recover from it, and develop the resiliency that they need to live their best possible lives.
The Psychophysiology of Stress
The human body operates on an amazing system grounded in the principal of homeostasis. This self-correcting process allows us to bring ourselves back into balance whenever it is required. When we overheat, we sweat and cool down. When our blood becomes too thick, mechanisms bring more water from our cells and thin our blood down to its proper viscosity. When we are under stress this homeostatic principal seeks to bring us back into balance. Let’s take a look at how our nervous system operates this.
From this graphic, focus upon the Autonomic Nervous System. You will see that it is composed of two parts, the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems. When we are under threat, or stress, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) kicks in and arouses us to either fight, flee or freeze. This is the classic Fight or Flight Response.
When we are under real threat, like a stranger jumping out of van and confronting us as we approach our car in an isolated parking lot, this response may be vital to our survival. Suddenly our heart rate goes up, our adrenal glands release adrenalin and noradrenalin, cortisol and other stress hormones enter our bloodstream, our eyes dilate (allowing us to see better in low light), blood leaves our extremities and pools to our body core (minimizing bleeding in case our arms or legs are cut, and protecting our vital organs), our digestion shuts down (we need our energy elsewhere), the bronchi dilate increasing our ability to take in oxygen, and more glucose is made available to the blood to provide a supply of instant energy for both cognitive and physical purposes. So, you can see that this remarkable response does a fantastic job of equipping us to deal with muggers, Saber-toothed Tigers (back in our days in the cave), and other acute threats.
Unfortunately, in our modern-day world, we often trigger SNS arousal to a greater or lesser degree, by what might be called ‘false alarm states’.
As any wellness coach can recognize, these false alarm states are often the drivers of the very issues that bring our clients to coaching. Stress has a tremendous effect upon these and many more health challenges. When we are in a chronic state of SNS arousal we will see more headaches, insomnia, difficulty managing chronic pain, more tendency towards unhealthy coping mechanisms (including addictive behaviors), and difficulty managing anxiety, anger and our emotions. It’s easy to see how a client with weight issues might have improved eating and exercise/movement but is still struggling losing weight as they continue to live a high-stress life. Thus, while we are wired to handle acute stress in a potentially adaptive way, chronic stress is our nemesis.
The Relaxation Response
Back to the all-ruling principal of homeostasis. The nervous system’s answer to Sympathetic Nervous System arousal is to counter-balance it with Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) arousal. To counteract all of this activation for action we need a way to slow down the heart rate, reduce the blood pressure, calm the breathing, bring blood back into the extremities, quiet down the release of stress hormones, get the digestive system back online, and essentially bring us back to our baseline level of tension/arousal, or even dip below it. In contrast to ‘fight or fight’, this response is sometimes referred to as ‘rest and digest’.
For thousands of years people have found ways to bring about this PNS arousal. Methods of meditation, breathing, movement, prayer, chanting, etc. all have the potential to bring about this state of profound relaxation. Harvard cardiologist, Herbert Benson, coined the term ‘Relaxation Response’, and his groundbreaking 1975 book by that title created a whole new way to approach dealing with stress. His research since then has continued to demonstrate the profound utility of bringing out this quieting response through mind-body practices. Benson managed to demystify meditation and to distinguish it from religious practices. In more recent times, Jon Kabat Zinn has done the same with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques. Bringing out the Relaxation Response allows us to recover from stress. I will be delving into how to coach clients to do this in my next blog posting.
Actions of The Relaxation Response
Stress And Distress
Coaches often encounter a client who will claim to “thrive on stress”.
We actually do require a certain level of stress to bring out our best performance. Think of how some of the greatest performances in music and sports have occurred in the most high-stress moments. We look to experience ‘optimal stress’, or what is called Eustress.
There is, of course, a point where the stress becomes excessive and this is where we see this positive stress become Distress. This is where one’s stress related disorder may kick in. The headache comes on, the difficulty sleeping begins, the gastrointestinal problems start, the skin reacts, etc. Practicing some kind of method that brings out our Relaxation Response on a regular basis may, however, bring our baseline level of stress down enough for us to remain in eustress longer and perhaps not cause us to cross over into distress. Thus, the wellness coach may work with a client to help them find a way to integrate some kind of regular practice that brings out the Relaxation Response. Performing such practice could be an activity the client keeps track of and sets up accountability agreements about with the coach.
Caution Coaching With The Relaxation Response
As a wellness coach working with a client who has chosen to practice some form of relaxation training or meditative practice, you need to inquire about your client’s health concerns and all forms of medical treatment that they may be under. The chief concern is that as a client develops more competency with bringing out their Relaxation Response, it may alter their psychophysiology in a positive way, but in a way that must be accounted for with potential medical adjustments. Specifically, if your client is, for example, taking medication for hypertension, such practices may reduce their need to this medication and the dosage may need to be adjusted.Have your client inform their treatment team of their practices that may affect their medication needs. The Wellness Plan always supports the Treatment Plan. Make sure your efforts are coordinated with your client’s treatment team.
In two subsequent blogs I will be addressing how we can coach around the need to recover from stress, and how we can build greater resiliency to stress.
Most clients who struggle with medical adherence and/or the lifestyle improvements recommended by their treatment team (the Lifestyle Prescription) benefit from the structure that wellness coaching provides as well as the power of the coaching alliance. Clients are attempting to adopt new behaviors, shift from old unhealthy behaviors, and often reorganize their lives radically to do so. They benefit from co-creating, with their coach, a well-designed plan that addresses their overall, total wellness, and makes medical adherence a part of it. It becomes just one Area of Focus in a fully-integrated Wellness Plan.
Health and wellness coaches who work with clients challenged by chronic illness, and even more acute medical challenges, are counted upon to help with medical compliance and adherence. The clients themselves count on them because they struggle with medical self-testing, taking medication properly, following up with appointments, exercising, and whatever the recommendations of their “lifestyle change prescription” are. Coaches are also counted upon by those providing healthcare services, insurance services, employee benefits and more, to help manage costs through better overall patient compliance/adherence. This often becomes a large part of a wellness coach’s job.
The job is valued because the need is great. First of all, when clients fail to take their medication properly, manage their blood sugar levels well by doing their self-testing regularly, etc., they suffer. There are more hospitalizations and trips to the emergency room, more chance of complications and usually more progression of progressive diseases.
The Network for Excellence in Health Innovation calls improving patient medical adherence a $290 Billion Opportunity. (https://www.nehi.net/bendthecurve/sup/documents/Medication_Adherence_Brief.pdf) that’s what is lost in U.S. healthcare spending each year due to poor medication adherence alone. The same source goes on to say that “when patients with severe or chronic conditions do not take their medications, the consequences can be extreme. Clinical outcomes are highly affected by non-adherence. For example, those with 80-100 percent adherence rates are significantly less likely to be hospitalized than their counterparts.”
Lack of follow through on medications, and other types of “following doctor’s orders” can be due to many different reasons, some of which are not the fault of the patient. Cost of prescriptions and supplies in the United States is often a big factor. Inadequate instructions from the healthcare provider, a lack of self-care education, access to treatment and/or education, plus costs, account for about 31% of the reasons for poor adherence. The other “69% of the problem is behavioral, such as perceived benefits, poor doctor-patient relationship, medication concerns, or low self-efficacy.” (http://www.dtcperspectives.com/impact-behavioral-coaching-adherence/#_edn3).
A note on terms:
Non-compliance — not complying with medical directives, prescriptions, etc. A patient decides that their physician is basing a prescription on inadequate information and decides not to take prescribed statins. Non-compliance — More of a refusal, a decision. Can be medical or lifestyle prescriptions. May be due to external causes (like cost). More authoritarian. Non-adherence — not following through consistently with the treatment plan including the “lifestyle prescription”. Not adhering to the plan. More likely due to inabilities, difficulties executing the plan, etc. You will also find that the terms are sometimes interchangeable in the professional literature.
Research on health and wellness coaching has shown significant effectiveness in improving this problem. Unfortunately, most of the research narrowly focuses on one research variable, one aspect of medical compliance/adherence – medication adherence. In a study of the impact of health coaching with patients with poorly controlled diabetes, hypertension, and/or hyperlipidemia, “Health coaching by medical assistants significantly increases medication concordance and adherence.” (1) Ruth Wolever and Mark Dreusicke (2) found that integrative health coaching led to an increase in medication adherence and that better adherence correlated with a greater decrease in HbA1c (blood sugar measure).
Many of the studies are gleaning what appear to be the coaching methods that make a real difference in effectiveness. Wolever and Dreuskicke concluded that “Medication adherence requires underlying behavior skills and a supporting mindset that may not be addressed with education or reminders.” So, though helpful, clients/patients often need more than just text messages sent on their smart phones. Amanda Rhodes, in a 2017 article (3) takes on a more corporate perspective in showing how coaching is beneficial to both patients and the pharmaceutical and healthcare companies that serve them. What their research emphasized was how client-centered the whole approach needs to be. “Patient-centered behavioral coaching is designed to help patients determine the way in which THEY believe they need to change their behaviors to achieve their goals. Patients who feel listened to are more comfortable with the care they receive and are more likely to adhere.”
Alliance Over Compliance
For the health/wellness coach and the client they serve, the heart of the matter is the coaching alliance. As seen in the articles we’ve spotlighted here, adherence comes not from medical admonishment or authoritarian directives. It comes from a client/patient developing self-determined goals that they are motivated to pursue. It comes from having an ally to help them navigate through the barriers that they face to achieving the high level of health and wellness that all people want. The coach may be well aware of the medical urgency for a client to, for example, quit smoking, or take their medication properly. But, as we’ve learned from all forms of behavioral change efforts, the process, ultimately, must be self-directed. That is, the client has to see the value in making the change, be ready to make it, and have both a concrete plan of action and the support they need to achieve it. Tempting as it may be for the coach to become extremely directive and take over the action planning, they must remain in a true coaching mindset and be the ally the client needs in their own process. This requires patience, but as is often the case, patience pays off.
A Fully Integrated Wellness Plan
The client and coach work together to determine what the other Areas of Focus will be, based upon Readiness for Change Theory, the directives of the Lifestyle Prescription, the values and interests of the client, and all of the exploration and assessment that the coach and client have done together. Other Areas of Focus could include such things as: Attaining & Maintaining A Healthy Weight; Smoking Cessation; Achieving Greater Social Support, etc.
Areas of Focus break down into Goals and the specific Action Steps that the client will engage in to achieve those goals. All of this is co-created, not dictated.
Coaching Does What It Is Good At
In the focus on medical adherence, coach and client co-create a way to identify the specific behaviors that are needed to either develop or change. They then, strategize the best Action Steps that will be an optimal starting point for success. They develop tracking strategies, so the client will know when they are being successful at doing their self-testing regularly, taking medication on time, staying organized enough to follow through on medical appointments, etc. The key to tracking, whether done on phone apps, or good old pencil and paper is following up with Accountability on it. Sending the coach app or text messages, or simply reporting in at the next coaching appointment will help the client feel accountable to themselves to achieve what they, themselves, want to get done. The coaching alliance also takes on the myriad barriers, both internal and external that get in the way to solid medical adherence. Strategizing through barriers such as a lack of family or workplace support, checking out fearful assumptions (especially about side-effects), all increase the likelihood of success.
There are times when we see a complete shutdown of efforts to follow the directives of the treatment team, especially around the lifestyle changes that are urgently needed to shift. This refers to a client paralyzed by grief over their perceived loss of health. To understand this check out our previous blog post – “Astonishing Non-compliance – Understanding Grief and Readiness for Change in the Health Challenged Client” (https://wp.me/pUi2y-n2 ).
The Many Faces of Medical Adherence
Coach with your client to determine what the components of medical adherence are for them. Don’t just focus on medication. Help them see that their best strategy is to live their healthiest life possible in all dimensions of their wellness.
(1) Thom D, Willard-Grace R, Hessler D, DeVore D, Prado C, Bodenheimer T, Chen E. The impact of health coaching on medication adherence in patients with poorly controlled diabetes, hypertension, and/or hyperlipidemia: a randomized controlled trial. J Am Board Fam Med. 2015 Jan-Feb;28(1):38-45. doi: 10.3122/jabfm.2015.01.140123
(2) Ruth Q Wolever, Mark H Dreusicke.
Integrative health coaching: a behavior skills approach that improves HbA1c and pharmacy claims-derived medication adherence. Clinical care/education/nutrition/psychosocial research. https://drc.bmj.com/content/4/1/e000201
• Sforzo, Kaye, Todorova, et al. (2017). Compendium of the Health and Wellness Coaching Literature. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine,1559827617708562. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1559827617708562
• Ruth Q. Wolever, Making the Case for Health Coaching: How to Help the CFO Understand — Real Balance Coach Center – April 2018 Free Monthly Webinar.
• https://ichwc.org/resources/ “A Systematic Review of the Literature on Health and Wellness Coaching: defining a Key Behavioral Intervention in Healthcare” (Resources section for ICHWC)
Medical noncompliance is a vast and complex issue that results in widespread human suffering and immense healthcare costs. Of the 3.8 billion pharmaceutical prescriptions written each year (USA) it is estimated that more than 50% of them are taken incorrectly or not at all. Medical noncompliance also includes failure to do medical self-care, self-testing and attend follow up appointments with the treatment team.
As wellness and health coaches are given more opportunities to help people, especially people who have, or may soon develop, a chronic illness (heart disease, diabetes, cancer, arthritis, COPD, etc.), we will face again and again what has stymied healthcare professionals for decades; the patient who has heard the diagnosis but has made virtually no changes to improve their health. They have gotten the news but haven’t woken up and smelled the coffee.
The story is far too familiar. You may have seen it amongst the people you work with, your friends or in your own family. It may have been what you have experienced yourself. The person gets a new diagnosis of a life-threatening disease or is warned that such a disease is immanent (e.g. pre-diabetic) unless they make significant lifestyle changes. Or, perhaps they experience a sudden health event like a heart attack. Given medical treatment, they are also given a “lifestyle prescription”. They are told to make lifestyle changes: quit smoking; be more active and less sedentary; improve their diet; manage their stress better, etc. Such immediate lifestyle changes are conveyed as absolutely essential to their continued survival: a low-sodium diet for the hypertensive patient; lower stress levels for the post-heart attack patient; complete restructuring of the diet of the newly diagnosed diabetes patient, etc. Then, far too often, the healthcare professional watches, as do family and friends, in total astonishment, as the patient makes none of these changes. So, when lifestyle changes are necessary what determines a person’s ability to make the needed changes in the quickest way possible?
Readiness For Change
Working with clients around medical compliance and adherence to the lifestyle prescription is the place where Prochaska’s “Readiness for Change”, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s “Stages of Grief “, and Maslow’s “Hierarchy of Needs” all intersect. What we, the caregivers often fail to understand is that when a person has experienced a truly life changing event, like the onset or worsening of a health challenge they feel a loss of control that may threaten their safety, they experience grief at the loss of health, ability, or dreams, and often need to redefine their identity.
Pre-contemplation → Contemplation → Preparation → Action → Maintenance → Termination (Adoption)
This is certainly a helpful way to understand where someone is at regarding a particular behavioral change. Knowing if they are in the Contemplation or Preparation stage, for example, helps us know how to work with them. This single lens, however, is not enough. In the patient/client who astounds us with their level of non-adherence we find we are encountering more than just lower levels of readiness, we are encountering grief and loss.
Grief And Loss
A loss is a loss.The loss of a loved one through death, the loss of one’s health, or the loss of the dream held for how life would be, are all perceived as losses to be grieved. To help you understand a person’s reaction to a health challenge, diagnosis, etc., and to help you, as a coach or healthcare provider, respond more compassionately and effectively, put all of it in the perspective of the classic stages of grief. The work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, Stephen Levine and others have shown us that the grieving process is a multi-layered experience that affects us powerfully.
Kubler-Ross identified the five stages of grieving that are present for any significant loss: 1) Denial; 2) Anger; 3) Bargaining; 4) Depression; and 5) Acceptance.
I talk about this extensively in chapter ten (“Health and Medical Coaching- Coaching People With Health Challenges”) of my book, Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed., 2014 (https://www.amazon.com/Wellness-Coaching-Lasting-Lifestyle-Change/dp/1570253218/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1530811214&sr=8-1&keywords=arloski+wellness+coaching). When we see the astonishingly non-compliant patient/client, they are often experiencing this first stage of denial. They minimize the importance of the event, downplay its seriousness, and do all they can to return to “business as usual”. Talking about the event or diagnosis becomes a forbidden subject and the person may become quite defensive. They are angry that this tragedy has befallen them, and understandably depressed about what has happened, and the state they are in. The idea of change has no appeal and they often seek the comfort of the familiar — including self-soothing habits such as smoking, overeating, etc.
The experience of a “brush with death”, or even the news that such a threat is imminent, can automatically push us into survival mode. No matter what level we were at in getting our needs met on Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (see Chapter One – “Toward A Psychology of Wellness” in my book, Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed. 2014) such an experience necessarily drives us down to the survival need level. We feel profound threat to our “safety needs” and “physiological needs”. Our very physical existence is threatened. Life becomes about the real basics of survival; the next breath, food, water, shelter. It becomes about the basics of safety; feeling secure, going back to the familiar, whatever reassures us that we will be OK.
It is no wonder that people going through such an experience may embrace the status quo, resist change and psychologically minimize the threat that they perceive.
This brings up questions about the health challenged persons readiness to change:
* How long will they stay at these survival levels seeking to meet their physiological and safety needs when they are encumbered by the initial stages of grief?
* How effective can one be at functioning and rising up through both the stages of readiness for change and the lower levels of the needs on Maslow’s model if they are in denial and minimizing, acting out in an angry manner or shackled by depression?
What needs to be considered to work effectively with health challenged clients is the intersection of these three widely accepted psychological theories Once understood, a Wellness Professional can truly motivate their client towards lasting lifestyle change.
Maslow’s theory of motivation contends that as people get their needs met at the lower levels of the Hierarchy of Needs Triangle they naturally move on up to the higher levels (their being needs). When we encounter a patient/client who fits the picture we are talking about here, do we acknowledge where they are at and do we help them get their needs met at that level? Or, do we demand immediate behavioral change just because the value and urgency of it is so great?
Meet Them Where They Are At
Our first job is to help them feel like they have an ally, someone who supports them and has their best interests at heart. This helps meet their safety needs and even some of their social needs. We then need to check in with the person and see how they are doing at the survival level. Are they receiving the medical care they need? Is their living situation allowing them to cover the basics of shelter, food, and safety? Much of this comes down to how their health challenge affects the security of their way of making a living. How do they perceive (and it is their perception that counts) their health challenge as a threat to their livelihood? Do they fear losing their job, falling behind in production, having their business falter or fail? How much are they into catastrophic thinking about all of this?
What is more frightening than to believe we are powerless? The threat to our very survival is there, like a cave bear at the mouth of our cave, and we believe we can do nothing to stop it. If our patient/client feels powerless to affect the course of their illness, then they wonder why should they make all the effort required to achieve lifestyle improvements? When we feel powerless we often don’t go to fight or flight, we freeze.
The reflexive response to fear is contraction. Hearing a sudden, loud noise, we instantly tense up and contract all our major muscle groups. Feeling scared, we hold on. We reflexively hold on to what we have and to the way things are. Change seems even scarier than what frightened us to begin with. We are like the person in the path of a hurricane who won’t leave the safety of home, sweet home, even though it will probably be flooded and blown away. For our client to “let go” and trust in the change process their physiological and safety needs have to be met. If they doubt this they may give the appearance of compliance, but their probability of follow-through is questionable.
Beyond the very basics of survival, we can help our client then to get their needs in the next two levels met: Social Needs (sense of belonging, love) and Self-esteem Needs (self-esteem, self-worth, recognition, status). This is where coaching for connectedness plays a priceless role. We know that isolation is a real health risk and at this crucial time the presence and engagement of an extended support system can provide huge benefits. Our client will need the help of others in many practical ways, but they will fare far better if they are getting the emotional support that comes with getting their needs for belongingness, acceptance and compassion met. We, the helper can only provide a very small part of this and some of our best efforts may be to help the person we are working with to find, develop and expand sources of support in their lives. The nature of the support they receive from others is important as well. This person needs understanding, empathy and support, not criticism and pressure to make lots of changes immediately. We need to encourage our client to ask for the support they need in the ways that they need to receive it.
Coaching to improve self-esteem allows the client to move on up through Maslow’s triangle through the next level. We all need to feel good about ourselves, to receive recognition and praise. When one is hit with a health challenge they may feel anything but good about themselves. Perhaps they are framing the health event or onset of an illness as a personal failing. There may be embarrassment and/or shame that they are no longer completely healthy. Their own “inner-critic” may be very harsh on them, filling their mind with self-critical thoughts that, again, cause them to do anything but take action for change. Helping the person to regain a sense of power and control in their life can also reclaim self-esteem. When we feel powerless to control events and circumstances in our lives we feel weak, vulnerable and impotent. When we discover what we can actually do through our own lifestyle choices to affect the course of our illness for the better, we feel empowered and regain confidence and strength.
Ten Ways to Effectively Coach the Health Challenged.
When we encounter: the person who has had a heart attack and is still downplaying the importance of it, almost pretending that it didn’t happen; the person diagnosed as pre-diabetic who has made no dietary changes at all and remains as sedentary as ever; the person diagnosed with COPD who is still smoking, etc., we need to respond to them in a more coach-like way. In each step consider that their readiness for change will be determined in part by their stage of grief and where they fall in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. How quickly they move through the change process will be in part determined by past experiences and in part by the support they have in the present to change.
1) Meet Them With Compassion Not Judgment.
Catch yourself quickly before you criticize their lack of adherence to the recommended lifestyle changes they have been told to do. Bite your tongue, so to speak, and instead of forcefully telling them what they should be doing, and warning them, once again, of the dire consequences of non-adherence, respond with sincere empathy and listen. 2) Acknowledge And Explore Their Experience.
Ask them what it was like when they found out about their health challenge; diagnosis, or what is was like when they experienced this health event. Don’t jump to solutions or start problem solving. Just listen, really listen. Reflect their feelings. Acknowledge what was and is real for them. Explore it with them and see if there isn’t some fear that needs to be talked about here. 3) Don’t Push, Stay Neutral In Your Own Agenda, And Explore More.
While it may feel like this person needs to take swift action with tremendous urgency, be patient. Readiness for change grows at a different rate for each step of the journey. 4) Be Their Ally.
Help them feel that they are not facing this alone. This helps meet their need for safety and even some of their social needs. Does the client understand their health challenge? To what degree does the client understand and buy into the lifestyle changes suggested? 5) Address Survival First.
Make sure they are getting all the medical help and information they need. Explore their fears about maintaining income, job, career, business, and how it all will be impacted by their health challenge. Help them gain a sense of control and feel more safe and secure in all ways. Help them to see that they are not completely helpless and vulnerable, but that there are ways they can affect their situation. 6) Help Them Process The Loss.
Talking through the grief is very powerful. The loss of health is felt to the level that it is perceived. That perception will be part reality and part fear. Help your patient/client to process their feelings, to give a voice to the part of them that is afraid. Accept their initial tendency to minimize but slowly help them feel safe enough to move through the other stages of grief (anger, bargaining, depression and finally, acceptance). 7) Help Them Form A Plan.
Even if it is very basic, help them develop a plan for becoming healthy and well again and how to face their health challenge. Meet them where they are currently remembering that preparing to take action is a vital readiness for change stage. What do they need to know? Having a plan will give them both hope and a sense of purpose and direction, a map to find their way out of their current situation. It is something to hold on to. 8) Coach For Connectedness.
If the basic survival needs feel met the person can reach out to others and will benefit from a sense of belonging. Family and friends need to be inclusive and not critical. Support from co-workers is also extremely helpful. The fear that is brought up by the onset of serious health problems sometimes frightens others and efforts need to be made to break through this initial resistance. Coach them through their own reluctance to asking for support. 9) Build Self-esteem.
Recognize, acknowledge and reinforce all progress. There is no wrong! Help your patient/client to exhibit greater self-efficacy because as they take charge of their health and their life, their self-esteem grows. 10) Nothing Succeeds Like Success.
Help the health-challenged person to take small steps to prepare for change and then experiment with actions where they are most ready. Build on these easier successes and leave the tougher challenges for later after confidence has been built.
Maslow reminds us that “growth forward customarily takes place in little steps, and each step forward is made possible by the feeling of being safe, of operating out into the unknown from a safe home port, of daring because retreat is possible.” (Toward A Psychology of Being, 1962) . To emerge from that home port, our client needs to be in the process of working through their grief, they need to be moving up the spiraling stages of change, and how better to set sail towards the unknown lands of change than with a good ally?
Michael Arloski, Ph.D., PCC, CWP, NBC-HWC
The first version of “Astonishing Noncompliance” was originally published in the Real Balance Global Wellness Services, Inc. Newsletter in 2009. It has also been published by a number of other organizations such as the American Holistic Nurses Association (https://ahha.org/selfhelp-articles/astonishing-non-compliance/)
Arloski, M. (2014) Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed. Duluth, MN: Whole Persons Associates.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. (1997) On Death and Dying. NY, NY. Scribner.
Maslow, Abraham. (1962) Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton, N.J., VanNostrand.
Prochaska, James, and Janice. (2016) Changing To Thrive. Hazelden Publishing.
Prochaska, J., Norcross, J, & Diclemente, C. (1994) Changing For Good. New York, NY: Harper Collins/Quill. 1994 Harper Collins, 2002 Quill reprint.
Faced with the same lifestyle-based health crisis many other countries are experiencing, China has been searching for a way to help people truly succeed at lasting lifestyle change. Over half of the men in China smoke. The diabetes rate is now higher than the United States, with heart disease, COPD and other “lifestyle diseases” on the rise. Health information campaigns and medical admonition, as elsewhere, has only gone so far. Last month when Real Balance Global Wellness Services, Inc. (https://www.realbalance.com) teamed up with Chestnut Global Partners China EAP (http://chestnutglobalpartners.org) to bring live wellness and health coach certification training to China it was enthusiastically embraced.
The concept of wellness is new to China, and wellness & health coaching is even newer. Though there is a long tradition of Traditional Chinese Medicine that blends with Allopathic Conventional Medicine, these are still remedial treatments and do not address how to help someone improve lifestyle behavior. Smoking cessation programs are vigorous but face a huge challenge in this population. Wellness coaching provides an innovative way to make behavioral change possible for those who need it.
What impressed me most about my entire trip to China were the students in our live training in Shanghai. The class was composed partly of Chestnut Global Partners EAP employees. These were mostly physicians and department directors. The rest of the class was a mix of M.D.’s, dieticians, counselors, Human Resources professionals and even a few independent life coaches. Throughout our grueling six-day training their level of engagement was extraordinary. While all students are faced with the “mindset shift” challenge (going from a prescriptive, consultative way of interacting, to a coach approach), this group did so with less resistance than we anticipated. They really got the concept that when it comes to helping people change behavior, it is very different from treatment or education. Fortunately, the training I delivered was coordinated with my translator and co-trainer, Dr. Li Peizhong, psychologist and V.P. of Chestnut Global China. He performed live translation as I spoke, and added greatly to the interaction and processing.
All of our trainings are highly interactive, and when students shared information and stories of work they had done with patients and clients, the level of humor employed was amazing! Much was “lost in translation” for me, but they were continually breaking out into boisterous laughter. Also, the Chinese students were more natural in their continual use of empathy in their coaching practice. While they tended, like students everywhere (we’ve found), to jump right into problem solving first, they used empathy and spoke of the importance of it, more than any other group I have trained.
Chinese culture is well known for valuing the group. As our training went on, group cohesion increased rapidly. Students supported one another in their learning through a real sense of caring for one another. When one student volunteered to be our client for a round of “fishbowl coaching” practice (where a student works on a real life challenge and is coached by a number of students) she left the exercise still perplexed about a way forward. Students formed a circle around our volunteer student and spent their entire break time collectively discussing with her about how to address her challenge.
The other evidence of this collective spirit was in the almost instant formation of a class group on the app WeChat. Before the training was even finished, and then vigorously once it was complete, they were on WeChat (http://www.wechat.com/en/) connecting, lining up their Buddy Coaching, and then sharing photos and stories of how they were following through on their own lifestyle improvement action steps.
The students were unbelievably appreciative, kind and treated me like royalty. I had integrated some of my Tai Chi and Xi Gung practice into our energy breaks, much to the delight of the students. At the conclusion of the training, at our celebratory class dinner they gifted me with a beautiful white Tai Chi practice suit to show their appreciation.
On To Beijing!
After our training in Shanghai, we flew to the country’s capital, Beijing, for a special Book Release Event. At Peking University (yes, it is spelled differently), Chestnut Global and my publisher, The China Translation & Publishing House, hosted a large gathering of executives from several multi-national corporations, representatives of the Chinese government’s smoking cessation program, and others, to witness the release of my book, Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed., (https://wholeperson.com/store/wellness-coaching-for-lasting-lifestyle-change.shtml) in its Mandarin translation. Speakers from Chestnut Global, Peking University, and the government’s smoking cessation program joined me in delivering talks to the very receptive audience. This was followed by one astonishing Chinese banquet.
A World of Wellness
I have been fortunate to take our training to a number of countries around the world and each experience has been special. The beautiful thing is that whether it is a training session in Indianapolis, Sao Paulo, Dublin, Shanghai, or Fort Collins, our students know that this training is going to make their work so much more effective. They know it is going to make their work so much easier, and more rewarding. They know it is going to help them enhance the lives of others.
I’ve stood at the front of the room around the globe, but it is the people who stand behind me that really make it all possible. It’s the allies we’ve formed in other countries and it’s the people right here at home. I’m able to write books and deliver keynotes and trainings because others are operating the office, servicing our students, teaching classes and representing Real Balance to the world as well. I come back from China with a heart full of hope for the people of our planet and with gratitude for those who help me step out there and make it a better place.
What The World Health Organization dubbed “Lifestyle Disease” is a global phenomenon. The increase of non-communicable disease is going up the fastest in what is sometimes called the developing countries of the world. “Twenty-five years ago, the number of people with diabetes in China was less than one percent. Today, China has more than 114 million people suffering from the disease, the highest number of any country in the world. It is estimated that 11.6 percent of Chinese adults have diabetes, a proportion higher than the U.S. with 11.3 percent. Experts blame the increase in sedentary lifestyles, high consumption of sugary and high-calorie Western diets, excessive smoking and lack of exercise.” (http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/07/24/the-increasing-burden-of-diabetes-in-china/)
From the very start of my work in developing the field of wellness coaching my vision was to bring wellness worldwide. Real Balance Global Wellness Services, Inc. (http://www.realbalance.com) has now trained over 6,000 health and wellness coaches around the globe. We have trainers in Ireland, Brazil and Australia. We have trained people from places like Dubai, Ethiopia, Hong Kong, Denmark, Korea, and many more countries through our fully-interactive webinar trainings.
Now we are continuing with our global mission by TAKING WELLNESS COACHING TO CHINA ! We are proud to announce that Real Balance is teaming up with Chestnut Global China EAP (http://chestnutglobalpartners.org) to bring wellness and health coach certification training to China! I will deliver a certification training in Shanghai March 14-19, and then travel on to Beijing to promote wellness coaching and do a book signing.
The book I will be signing in Beijing is Wellness Coaching For Lasting Lifestyle Change, 2nd Ed., newly translated into Mandarin and published in China! The challenges of “lifestyle disease” are rapidly increasing in China as more people move to urban areas, diets change, smoking continues to increase, culture shifts and stress increases as well. Helping people gain access to allies that can help them succeed at lifestyle improvement is just as important here as anywhere else.
We are exploring other ways to connect with people around the world to contribute to the health of the planet and its people. Please be a part of creating Allies For A Healthy World.
Back In The U.S.A.
Please join us in beautiful Colorado Springs, at The Art & Science of Health Promotion Conference (https://www.healthpromotionconference.com). March 27-31.
Real Balance will be exhibiting there and I will be delivering two workshops: “Five Key Coaching Skills For Motivating Sustainable Lifestyle Improvement”, and “Mastering The Science and Craft of Health & Wellness Coaching: Higher-Level Methods And Skills.” See you there!
The theme of the 41st Annual National Wellness Conference was “Spotlight On Sustainability”. While we often think about sustainability and our environmental practices, as a wellness coach and psychologist I immediately thought of sustainable behavioral change. As I prepared for my presentation on this topic my research revealed that we actually know very little about how effective our efforts at helping people improve their lifestyles actually are.
Maintaining success at lifestyle change is often daunting. Most wellness coaching clients have a history of initiating efforts at losing weight, stopping smoking, managing stress, etc. For many, however, there is a trail of failures at maintaining those new ways of living in the long run. The result is a lowering of self-efficacy and lingering feelings of discouragement. As I explored in a previous blog post “Lessons From Albert Bandura For Wellness Coaches” (http://wp.me/pUi2y-dB) there is much for coaches to learn about self-efficacy.
When we go to trusted sources looking for help with making healthier behavior last, what do we find? Unfortunately, not much. From Harvard Medical School’s online publication Healthbeat I found “The Trick To Real And Lasting Lifestyle Changes”. (http://www.health.harvard.edu/healthbeat/the-trick-to-real-and-lasting-lifestyle-changes) Though this title sounds like the exact resource to look for, all it advised was a simplistic review of SMART Goals.
Turning to the APA Psychology Help Center we find “The key to making lasting lifestyle and behavioral changes: Is it will or skill?” (http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/lifestyle-behavior.aspx) This disappointing short article could only offer this: “Lasting lifestyle and behavior changes don’t happen overnight. Willpower is a learned skill, not an inherent trait. We all have the capacity to develop skills to make changes last,” said Katherine C. Nordal, PhD, executive director for professional practice at APA. “It is important to break down seemingly unattainable goals into manageable portions.” The article mostly talked about how ineffective we are at making any changes in our behavior and did not even address making changes last!
As I deepened my research quest I found that other behavioral scientists had been concerned enough about this issue to establish an impressive research consortium to tackle it. The result was a publication in The American Journal of Health Behavior (2010 Nov-Dec; 34(6): 647–659) entitled The Science of Sustaining Health Behavior Change: The Health Maintenance Consortium. The authors (Marcia G. Ory, PhD, MPH,1 Matthew Lee Smith, PhD, MPH, CHES, CPP,2 Nelda Mier, PhD,3 and Meghan M. Wernicke, MPH4) did a thorough research synthesis of articles spanning 2004-2009, amassed resources and funded twenty-one projects to look at this issue of lasting change in health behavior. Here is what they concluded.
What we are up against when it comes to lasting change.
• How long can positive gains be sustained without additional long-term support? • In most cases this is unknown because studies only track maintenance for a year or two after the post-intervention phase. • In the majority of cases, intervention effects on lifestyle behaviors are often strongest in the one or two years closest to active intervention. • Without additional support, positive effects tend to diminish over time, or treatment differences vanish.
What they found was frankly, not a lot.
• It’s not realistic to expect long-term maintenance based on initial interventions. (Single-variable research) • Moderate-intensity behavioral interventions may need to be coupled with more environmental changes to sustain long-term effects. • In other words people need the support of healthier communities and workplaces, peer groups, etc. • Incorporation of physical activity into the self concept emerged as the strongest predictor, with self-efficacy having a major indirect influence confirming it as an important predictor for both behavioral initiation and maintenance
In summary:The authors conclude that no single mediator makes a large impact; rather, there is a “long and winding road” with maintenance achieved through a multitude of modest interrelated meditational pathways from behavioral initiation to maintenance.
There are many reasons for our scarcity of knowledge. One is that much research of this nature is done by universities where graduate students need short-term projects that allow them to finish up and…graduate! We may learn more from larger sociological and epidemiological studies such as The Framingham Study (https://www.framinghamheartstudy.org) , the work of The Blue Zones, (https://www.bluezones.com) etc. However, here we are not isolating variables. We can’t really say if it was the plant-based diet, the supportive extended family, or the red wine that made the healthy difference. It seems we have to be satisfied with the shotgun approach and put our best bets on culture and environment.
What can we conclude about making positive changes in health and wellness behavior last?
• Changes must be sustainable over a lifetime
• Intrinsic motivation trumps extrinsic every time
• Most research looks at single interventions and doesn’t track more than one or two years
• Long-term studies show that a combination of environmental support and “internal” shifts sustain lifestyle improvement better. Culture, environment, attitude and beliefs!
• We must ask how can coaching support shifts towards “well” attitudes and beliefs?
The Five Keys of Coaching For A Lifetime of Wellness
• 1. Build Self-Efficacy • 2. Nurture Visionary & Intrinsic Motivation • 3. Focus On The Maintenance Stage (TTM) • 4. Co-create Relapse Prevention Strategies • 5. Coach For Connectedness
1. Build Self-Efficacy
Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory (formerly AKA Social Learning Theory) shows tremendous congruity between it and the foundational principles of coaching. Bandura deeply explored the concept of Self-Efficacy which is foundational to wellness coaching. (Again see the previous blog post “Lessons From Albert Bandura For Wellness Coaches” (http://wp.me/pUi2y-dB)
2. Nurture Visionary & Intrinsic Motivation
Much of our coaching work is around helping people to envision the outcome they want. When we have a clear picture of both where we are (our current state of wellness) and where we want to be (our Well Life Vision) we can “coach to the gap” between the two and coach around what needs to change to attain that Well Life Vision. Such a positive psychology approach is foundational to coaching and motivates better than just fear and illness avoidance.
To COACH for intrinsic motivation: * Notice! – Help your clients to focus on the enjoyment, the pleasure that they perceive as they are performing the behavior. * Inquire! – Ask about the details of their experience. When a client reports about taking a walk, hike or bike ride outdoors ask about what they saw, what they experienced, what they felt. * Inquire about Bonus Benefits. Clients sometimes fixate on their goal of weight loss for example, but what else is happening during their efforts? Are they experiencing more energy? Better sleep? More mental concentration? * Avoid incentivizing. Incentives tend to decrease intrinsic motivation. * Take a Kai Zen Approach. (https://www.amazon.com/Small-Step-Change-Your-Life-ebook/dp/B00GU2RHCG/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467763620&sr=1-1&keywords=robert+maurer#nav-subnav) Coach with your client to set up action steps that are so small that they are very doable and allow continuously successful progress towards their goals.
3. Focus On The Maintenance Stage (TTM)
Of all of the Stages of Change that Prochaska talks about in his Transtheoretical Model of Change (https://www.amazon.com/Changing-Good-Revolutionary-Overcoming-Positively-ebook/dp/B003GYEH2Y/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1467763816&sr=1-1&keywords=prochaska+changing+for+good#nav-subnav), coaching around the Maintenance Stage may be the most vital. Here the coach again takes a positive psychology approach and acknowledges and reinforces what is working. As the old saying from coaching goes “Nothing succeeds like success!” A key in this stage is for the client to see the value in Tracking Behavior and to do it regularly. Avoiding self-deception is key. Use whatever works for keeping track of new healthier behaviors: calendars, charts, apps, activity monitoring devices, etc. Then the Accountability that coaching provides makes the process conscious, deliberate and increases consistency. Lastly, coaches really prove their worth here as they coach their clients through the barriers and the “push-back” that sometimes is received by those who clients were hoping would provide support.
4. Co-create Relapse Prevention Strategies
Relapse happens! Count on it! James Prochaska is fond of back-up plans. We all know that life throws us curve-balls all the time. Our best-laid plans run up against life realities. This is where coaching can get creative! Coach clients to come up with their own back-up plans for then things don’t go as they would like, or when temptation increases. Going to a potluck dinner where the dietary direction of friends tends to be sabotaging of your wellness efforts? Be sure to bring an entrée to share that will satisfy your own needs. Not enough time to do your hour-long exercise routine? Having a quick and simple set of exercises you can do anywhere fills in “better than nothing” and maintains engagement in your program.
Pivotal to this key is self-compassion. There is a real difference between excuse-making and true compassionate understanding. Coach your client to be less self-critical and more forgiving. Help them keep a healthy perspective on their wellness plan.
5. Coach For Connectedness
In our Real Balance Wellness & Health Coach training (https://www.realbalance.com) we emphasize coaching for connectedness from day one. The amount of time any client spends in coaching is a brief moment compared to the lifetime they have to live in a new way. In addition to the support of the coach, other sources of support must be encouraged, discovered or consciously developed. For each step of action we ask “Who or what else can support you in this?” If our client has little support then making the development of such support a deliberate area of focus to work on in coaching is vital. This is where the role of culture, community, workplace, peer groups, family, friends, and relationships becomes a part of coaching that cements lasting lifestyle change.
Living a wellness lifestyle is a lifetime job! Providing the kind of coaching that goes beyond simplistic goal-setting and allows our clients to transform who they are can build the foundation for a lifetime of wellness.
When faced with overwhelming, frightening and ultimately complex problems we tend to search for simplistic answers. Perhaps this is an adaptive attempt originating in the deep part of our brain known as the amygdala, where fear triggers our survival instincts (and our flight/fight/freeze response). In our ancestral days near our cave, taking action to freeze, run or fight like hell often served us well. Today, however we are faced with other stimuli that, despite our rationalizations and euphemisms to the contrary, actually do scare us just as much, but in a different way. No longer fleeing Saber-toothed Tigers, today, instead we face frightening foes like global climate change, racism, war and peace, extremist politics and chronic disease.
To combat these foes, we again seek the fastest, and therefore simplest responses that attempt to be solutions. Overly simplistic thinking causes us to latch on to attractive answers that seem to bring us some semblance of relief from the anxiety of overwhelm and the fear of the unknown. We generalize, minimize and seek solace in some quoted study that showed that ten people did one thing, one time, and now are healthy and safe for life. Eat low fat. Eat high fat. Don’t exercise…just drink wine! Chocolate could be one of your basic food groups!
In healthcare and wellness we take something as supremely complex as weight management and leave our critical thinking hats off as we search for some magical Thor’s Hammer that will strike down obesity, diabetes and heart disease with one swift (and don’t forget easy) blow. If it only was that simple!
As a University Counseling Center Psychologist I worked with a great number of victims of rape and abuse. I observed how victims would astonishingly blame themselves and go through a time of attempting to feel safer by saying “If only I hadn’t been in that place at that time”, or “If only I had been doing this instead of that”.The health and wellness equivalent may be when we seek out lifestyle practices that we hope will insulate us from disease and misfortune. I’m not talking about basic health-risk reduction here, but rather the way people grab on to simple all-or-none thinking about diet, exercise, stress management practices, etc. We think that kale, mindfulness, Yoga, coconut oil, or a new Fitbit will be our single-track savior. We want the comfort of the “illusion of explanatory depth”.
Everyday, when we look harder at the research, and that means going back to what we learned in Psychology or Sociology 101 about basic research, we can sift through all of the contradictory data and at least conclude that there is nothing simple about wellness, health and especially challenges like healthy weight management. In this internet-based age we are continually bombarded with headlines sprung from single studies with incredibly small “n’s”. Changing what we eat based on the success of seventeen people who dined while standing on one leg how we are urged to take action by headline-grabbing authors.
“The Cockroach Effect is certainly not limited to weight-related research. Dr. John Ioannidis has spent his career exposing the personal biases, economic pressures and downright bad science that plague medical research. In a seminal paper in PLoS Medicine in 2005 with the intriguing title, “Why Most Published Research Findings Are False,” he presented a model which predicted correctly that 80% of non-randomized studies, 25% of randomized trials and 10% of large randomized trials were refuted by later research. While we expect contradictions as part of science, Ioannidis also found that even when faulty research was debunked, its conclusions typically persisted for years or even decades. The details of his fascinating findings are explored in an article entitled “Lies, Damned Lies and Medical Science” which appeared in the Atlantic Magazine in November 2010.”
As tempting as it is to look for quick relief in simplistic answers, we must take a deep breath and know that health and wellness is a marathon, not a sprint. The progress may be found in a combination of studying both how we change, and how we maintain change.
This June at The National Wellness Conference (http://www.nationalwellness.org/?page=NWC2016) one of the breakout sessions I will be presenting is Coaching for a Lifetime of Wellness: Integrating the Keys to Sustainable Behavioral Change. We’ll look at how to shift our thinking from short-term outcomes to the only kind of study that really counts – the longitudinal study of one’s lifetime. There is a lot to explore about how to help people make lifestyle improvements that will have to last for the entire rest of their lives. The problems we face are multi-causal. The answers we seek need to be holistic and thorough. As many of you have heard me say “I did not write a book entitled “Wellness Coaching For Temporary Lifestyle Change.” See you in St. Paul, Minnesota this June!
Be well! Coach Michael
The first rule of sustainability is to align with natural forces, or at least not try to defy them.Paul Hawken