Reintegrating the body, brain and mind in counselling and therapy

ABC Blog Post

15th September 2018

Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2018


Dr Jim’s Blog: Mental health is not just about childhood experiences;

Or current stressors; or badly managed thoughts…

Mental health is related to diet and nutrition, inner dialogue, physical exercise, re-framing of experience, and sleep science…


Body-mindIn science as well as popular culture, the body and mind have long been pulled apart, and treated as separate entities.

And when they are treated as being connected – as in the modern psychiatric theory of ‘brain chemistry imbalances’ causing negative moods and emotions, the ‘brain chemistry’ in question is taken to be unrelated to how you use your body; what you eat; how well you sleep.

It is assumed to be ‘special brain chemistry’ – separate and apart from Lifestyle Factors – which can only be fixed by consuming dangerous drugs!

Front cover Lifestyle CounsellingIf you are interested in the impact of lifestyle practices on mental health and emotional states, then you will enjoy our page of information about how all of the ideas above are presented in our book about Lifestyle Counselling.  We see this as the core of most holistic healing practices of the future.

In the immediate future, lifestyle counselling practice will be a novel service offering for counselling and psychotherapy clients who have realized that:

# the body and mind are intimately connected;

# that the body-mind is an open system, permeated by a whole range of lifestyle factors which can be managed well, or mismanaged,

# which results in excellent or poor mental health, physical health, and personal happiness.

In the pages of our popular book on lifestyle counselling, we have presented:

Diet,exercise book cover– a summary of our previous book about the impact of diet and exercise on mental health and emotional well-being;

– a chapter which integrates psychological theories of emotion with physical sources of distress – for the emotions of anger, anxiety and depression – and recommends treatment strategies;

– a chapter on the negative effects of sleep insufficiency on our thinking, feeling and behaviour;

– a chapter on how to re-frame any problem, using our Six Windows Model (which includes some perspectives from moderate Buddhism and moderate Stoicism) – but excludes the extreme forms of those philosophies of life!);

– a chapter on how to divine and assess the counselling client’s multiple sources of emotional disturbance, using our Holistic-SOR Model;

– and a chapter on how to set about teaching lifestyle change to counselling and therapy clients.

For a page of information about this book’s contents, including extracts, and the contents pages and index pages, please click the following link: *Lifestyle Counselling and Coaching for the Whole Person… by Jim Byrne***

And/or you could also look at our current range of six books on this area of counselling and therapy theory and practice: Books about E-CENT Counselling.***


BlueLogo13CThat’s all for now.

Best wishes,


Dr Jim Byrne, Doctor of Counselling

ABC Coaching and Counselling Services

Telephone: 44 1422 843 629



Coaching & Counselling blog: Stress management post Brexit

Blog Post No. 42

27th December 2016

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: Stress management post Brexit:

How do we become more resilient in the face of bad news?


In this blog, I will briefly describe some strategies which have been adopted by several universities to help their staff handle the disruption and uncertainty around Brexit – the impending withdrawal of the UK from the European Union – and the possible (probable?!) end of research funding for projects which are being undertaken by university staff all over the UK.


Then the effectiveness of these strategies will be considered, and alternative ones described.

Headline: “Dons in distress get Brexit therapy”

This “Dons in distress” statement is the title of an article that was written in the Sunday Times on the 4th December, 2016. The article describes the emotions (of “uncertainty, grief and anger“) that university staff are feeling because of the Brexit vote. Research funding has been disrupted and/or stopped, and in some cases people are totally uncertainty about their future employment prospects.

Nottingham University, the article explains, is now holding resilience workshops to help the staff understand where their huge amounts of stress originate from. This is so they will have an increased sense of control over what is happening to them.

Leeds University staff counselling department and the Psychological Services have created a written guide which clarifies that the feeling of grief, anger, depression and anxiety are stages which are part of the process of handling change.


They explain to staff that if they don’t call a halt to their constant checking of the news, then they will continue to feel bad. “If you receive a lot of news shocks, your body is likely to experience fear”, they state.

In addition to feeling fear, another result of constant checking of the bad news is that the ability of the academic staff to get a decent night’s sleep would be reduced.

As an alternative to anxious worrying, the guide helpfully recommends exercise, resting and eating well.  (They could have added that “news fasting”, for long periods of time, would also help).

Resilience workshops

Offering workshops and printed guides to staff is a very constructive way to help them get a new sense of control over their lives. However, one of the major drawbacks are this approach the fragility of human memory: Because of the way human memory works, only about 20% of the information from the workshops will be remembered on the following day. And then as the days pass less and less detail will be recallable.  A special effort to record and retain the information would be needed: such as frequent reviews of the same helpful material, to get it into long-term memory.

The same applies to books and booklets: unless they are analysed, and notes taken and transformed into action steps, then their value is limited, and not fully realised.

The difference between declarative and procedural knowledge

Knowing all about how to handle change and the stresses that go with it, is a good start. And this type of knowledge is called ‘declarative knowledge’. Here’s an example:  many heavy smokers are very informed and knowledgeable about the risks of smoking. Does this knowledge help them to give up smoking? Not in the slightest!

To start new habits, or change old habits, we need ‘procedural knowledge’. We need to know how to do something, which is a very different matter. (If you look at my blog on habit creation this will show you a summary of the process).

How, then, do we cope in the face of life’s uncertainties; to manage our resilience levels; and to develop procedural knowledge of the process?

 Building our resilience.


One thing that is easy to forget is that we are all human animals. We’ve evolved from our pre-human ancestors, which evolved into our African hominid and human ancestors. We humans originally lived in the trees and then descended from them onto the plains of Africa. Our ancestors lived and raised children in small groups, and were biologically shaped to adapt to an environment in which each day’s food had to be searched for.

Otherwise, as vulnerable humans, we would not have survived as a race. The innate ‘fight or flight’ response – an internal, non-conscious, physiological (appraise and respond) mechanism – kept our ancestors alive and able to flee from dangers, or to try to fight animals that threatened them.

We’ve got exactly the same mechanism within us as our ancestors had, and we have a need to handle threats and dangers through physical activity. Our ancestors dealt with their own problems as they arose. But now the resilience and energy of people is being sapped by a background of continuous bad news, as people try to work, and raise their families in a turbulent world.


Handling bad news

Each day the most distressing news is carefully presented to us, and endlessly repeated, and our bodies register the negative information, and react to it physically. Unless we take action on a daily basis to burn off the stress hormones created by this endless newsfeed, we will get saturated with those hormones.

The Leeds University guide warns against news addiction, and recommends that staff manage their exposure to news. Apparently, according to the article, dons are having news programmes on continually and checking the news in the middle of the night.


Taking action to build resilience immediately

As a former lecturer at a FE college for approximately 35 years, I would like to share with you the three top techniques I used to survive in an educational environment which had a lot of waves of changes and uncertainty. Managing to emerge relatively unscathed, I’d like to recommend these three invaluable strategies for you to try out for yourself; and to experience the benefits of them yourself (assuming you don’t practise them already).

The first and foremost technique, in my opinion, to deal with massive change and uncertainty in the workplace, is daily exercise, which will burn off stress hormones from the previous day’s hassles. And not only does it quickly reduce feelings of anxiety or depression (or implosive anger) – our bodies make sure we find it a pleasurable activity, and release feel-good hormones.

Firstly I would recommend that you give up watching the evening news, and/or breakfast news on television each day, and instead do a bout of dancing, jogging, yoga, Chi-gong or any other kind of physical activity that you really enjoy. This is a great way to burn off the stress created by the previous day’s hassles, and it also releases endorphins, which are happiness chemicals, which lift your mood.

According to Robert Parry (2001) – in his book on Chi-gong – when we do exercise which involves deep breathing, like Chi-gong or yoga, then this type of breathing actually stimulates the parasympathetic part of our nervous systems, which is the part that helps the body rest, and restore; and renew itself through the digestive process. (This is called the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system).

We activate this process by breathing from our bellies, not our chests. (That is to say, we breathe into the bottom of the lungs, which pushes the diaphragm downwards, and the belly outwards).


This means that if we deliberately breathe deeply (from our diaphragm, expanding our bellies) as we do our exercises, we are able to influence our physical state: our body then switches from a stressed state to the parasympathetic relaxed state.

Parry states that: “Tests measuring the electromagnetic resonance of the brain confirm that our brains shift into what is termed the ‘Alpha’ state of relaxation and deep rest during Chi-gong breathing exercises, a state in which not only the digestion but the body’s immune function too can operate at its optimal level. This is why Chi-gong helps us feel more in touch with our emotions and thoughts.” (Page 125).

For these reasons, I strongly recommend that workers need to exercise most days of the week in order to handle stress at work.

The second technique: using assertiveness strategies

In addition to physical exercise, I also recommend assertive communication strategies.

Robert Sapolsky wrote a fascinating book called ‘Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers’, which I strongly recommend. And the reason they don’t get ulcers, fundamentally, is that they can run away very swiftly from predators who want to eat them for lunch.

If we come across predators (or threats) at work, for example in the form of challenges to our sense of dignity and competence (like being insulted, harassed verbally, or shouted at by a member of staff [or told our funding has been removed!]), we can’t really run away. We have to stay in this stressful situation, and handle these sorts of problems, because we need the income to support our families and keep a roof over our heads.

Because we cannot abandon our jobs when the going gets tough, and because not everybody we work with will be charming and gracious, and good negotiators, life at work can become very difficult.  People can make our lives miserable if we don’t learn how to handle them skilfully.

So my second recommendation is this: Start learning assertiveness techniques to strengthen yourself in the workplace. Learning specific assertiveness techniques, and using them to communicate with colleagues, will mean that you will develop a strong sense of control over your life. This reduces your stress levels.


But how are you to learn to be more assertive?  Some good ideas can be found in books – as in Barbara Berckhan’s book on Judo with Words.  Or you can watch videos on assertive communication on YouTube.  Or you can go on an Assertiveness Training course, if you can find one.

A more available option is to go to a good coach-counsellor for help.  Role-plays with a supportive coach or counsellor (like yours truly) can really help to strengthen you. These techniques can be used immediately to create a better working environment for people, or help them come to terms with a situation in which their options are limited.

With role-play you can get descriptions of the techniques to use; coaching on how to do this; and immediate, constructive feedback on how you are communicating.  And it is a very powerful way to help you learn to protect your energy (and your dignity!) For example it gives you practice in expressing yourself confidently, handling requests and complaints, etc., and gives you very useful phrases to use to do your job effectively with reduced wear and tear on your nervous system. You quickly learn to ask for what you want; to say ‘No’ to what you do not want; and how to communicate your needs, wants and feelings to others.

The third recommendation: ‘Daily pages’ or a diary.


The third recommendation is to write daily reflections on how your day went at work, or at home; and how you experienced events. The daily accounts are called “Daily pages”; or “Morning pages”, by Julia Cameron. She uses this technique to unblock creative people who have lost touch with their authentic selves and creative energies. She recommends writing three sides of A4 paper every morning. (This can be stream of consciousness, or deliberate, reflective logs of specific challenges at work, or at home) If this seems a lot, then aim to write at least one side of A4. This daily discipline works for the following crucial reason: our brains are designed to deal with incoming information – we are problem-solving creatures.  Ruminating in our minds, without committing our ideas to paper, simply causes us to go round and round the same old track, without learning or changing anything very much.

If we’re faced with challenges which we can’t handle, or need to ‘get (something) off our chests’ then we can write down what happens and our reaction to the events. This is externalising the information, and putting it out there on the page. Once the information is down on paper and out of our heads, we can see it. And because we can see it, our brain can then go into problem-solving mode and slowly a solution will appear from your brain-mind, magically.

philippa-perry-quoteLetting worries and fears about the future go round and round in our minds without expressing them in some way, is really bad for us and can affect our immune systems. Writing about what’s bugging us has an immediate therapeutic effect, and there is lots of evidence of its value.

It’s also private, with no financial cost, and it builds resilience in people because it puts them in touch with themselves and helps them learn about their own bodies-minds and responses to outside stressors.


writing-therapy-bookIf you wanted more details about the value of writing, then a really good book written by Dr Jim Byrne, details the benefits and research findings which show what a very effective technique it is. You can find it here: The Writing Solution.***





If you want to become more resilient in the face of constant change and challenges, then start to practice these three techniques on a daily basis:

# Physical exercise (preferably something like Chi-gong or yoga);

# Assertive communication skills;

# Daily writing in a journal or diary.

Immediately, and increasingly, these strategies will make you stronger physically and mentally, which is what you need to survive in the face of an incessantly changing society.

Daily exercise, assertive communication and daily written reflections are the foundation stones of self-care. With these three mind-body practices, you hold the key to protecting yourself and your energies in this crazy culture, so that you can survive and do your best for your family and loved ones, and get more enjoyment and relaxation out of the time that you have.

I hope you give them a try and enjoy the benefits!

That’s all for now.

Best wishes,


Renata Taylor-Byrne


The Coaching/Counselling Division

01422 843 629



Sapolsky, R. (2004) Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers.  New York: St Martins Griffin.

Berckhan, B. (2001) Judo with Words: An intelligent way to counter verbal attacks. London: Free Association Press.

Cameron, J. (1992) The Artist’s Way: A spiritual path to higher creativity.  London: Souvenir Press.

Byrne, J. (2016) Narrative Therapy and the Writing Solution: An emotive-cognitive approach to feeling better and solving problems (Narrative Therapy Series Book 1) Kindle Edition. Available: 


How to change your negative habits

Blog Post No. 40

15th October 2016

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: A ‘Rave review’ of “The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change”, by Charles Duhigg


lady-eatingCharles Duhigg’s fabulous book about The Power of Habit is a fascinating read. It’s a very practical guide to changing our habits and is very straightforward, and helpful, and contains case studies which show the process of habit change from start to finish. It’s also got easily understandable illustrations.  So, if you have some bad habits you want to eliminate, this book could be a huge help to you!

The nature of habits

What are habits? Here are two definitions

The definition of Habit by the Merriam-Webster dictionary is as follows: It’s (1) “… (a) behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance” or (2): “…An acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary.”


All our life, so far as it has definite form, is a mass of habits”.

(William James, 1892)


We are habit-based human beings, and the more we know about how we form habits, the easier it will be for us to change old ones that aren’t working for us, and create new ones.

A researcher at Duke University in 2006 discovered that more than 40% of the activities people engaged in every day were habits, and not decisions they had made.  And some theorists would say that this is as high as 95% (Bargh and Chartrand, 1999).

zigs-quoteOur brains have developed the ability to create habits because they allow our brains to save effort, and to think more efficiently without having our minds cluttered with the mechanics of the many basic behaviours we have to follow each day.

The structure of a habit

In his book, Charles Duhigg has looked very closely at the specific features of what makes up a habit. They are like a loop that has three parts: the cue; the routine; and the reward.  Here is a picture of that loop:


  1. Firstly, there is a cue (a trigger that starts off a routine: e.g. the sound of the alarm clock in the morning).

Here’s an example of a cue that I recently found in the Sunday Times Magazine, in an article by Viv Groscop (who performed her one-woman show at Edinburgh in August this year).  Viv stated that, to make her exercise routine strong, she started keeping her workout clothes and trainers next to her bed, so they were the first things she saw- the Cue! – in the early morning, as soon as she woke up. (She lost 3 stone [or 42 pounds in weight] in one year through changes in her exercise and nutrition habits).

2. Secondly, this is followed by a routine.

A routine is here defined as any pattern of behaviour.  Examples include: eating, going to the pub, watching a TV programme, going to the gym, doing homework, buying clothes, smoking, placing a bet, etc.

3. Finally, there is a reward – the most important part of the loop.

All habits have a reward at the end of them. Here’s are some examples of rewards: The feeling of comradeship when drinking at the pub; the rush of pleasure after you have just done a bout of exercise; giving yourself a cup of coffee when you’ve done your daily exercise. Seeing the good, pleasurable results of any difficult task.

callout-1The importance of craving!

For habit change to work you have to crave the reward.

There is an important alert here: You have to really crave the reward, or you won’t have the incentive to change your behaviour. Charles Duhigg describes a research project undertaken by the National Weight control agency. The agency examined the routines for eating food that had been created by people who were successful dieters. They investigated more than 6,000 people’s routines.

What was discovered was that all the successful dieters eat a breakfast (which was cued by the time of day). But they also had very real, very desirable rewards in place for themselves if they stuck to their diet plans – and it was the reward that they craved. (For example, being able to fit into new clothes in a smaller size; etc.)

lady-exercising-with-mental-image-of-rewardAnd if they felt themselves weakening in their commitment, they changed their focus onto the rewards that they would get if they kept to their plans. This visualisation of the very real rewards they would get, kept them strong in the face of temptation.

Apparently people who started new exercise routines showed that they were more likely to follow an exercise routine if they chose a specific cue (first thing in the morning, or as soon as they get in from work, or before bedtime). So having a cue in place is crucial to initiate the new behaviour.

The new routine follows from the cue.

And the reward is what people crave at the end.  Some of the rewards mentioned were having a beer, or allowing yourself an evening of watching the TV without guilt.

powerspin2As my own experiment, I wanted to establish a daily habit of exercising my arm muscles, to firm them up.  Therefore, I set up a cue which is the start of the BBC TV programme “Pointless” at 5.15pm every day.

When I hear the theme music for Pointless, I get out our “Powerspin” device (illustrated above) and do a pre-planned (recommended) set of exercises.

This exercise routine is designed to strengthen our arms and back muscles, and core (stomach), and is very simple.

And the reward for me (which I crave strongly – otherwise it won’t work) is the knowledge that my arms and back and core muscles are getting stronger and fitter, and will keep me fit and able to carry heavy objects into old age! And so far so good – I’ve only missed a few times!

Duhigg’s own experiment

Charles Duhigg did a really interesting personal experiment to see if he could change one of his own habits.  He was eating too many cookies and he was starting to put on weight. Here’s his explanation.  His description of his experiment and the results are shown in the following YouTube video clip:


The importance of substitution

What if we have a habit that we want to change? Can we get rid of it?

How do we go about it? Charles Duhigg states that we can’t get rid of old habits – but what we can do is substitute new routines for the old ones, and get the same rewards.


He explains that a golden rule of habit change, which has been validated by repeated studies for a long time, is as follows:

“To change a habit, we must keep the old cue, and deliver the old reward, but change the routine.

“That’s the rule: if you use the same cue, and provide the same reward, you can shift the routine and change the habit. Almost any behaviour can be transformed if the cue and reward stay the same”. (Page 62)

He gives the example of someone who wants to give up cigarettes. If the person wanting to quit smoking fails to find something else to do, when they start to crave nicotine, then they will be unable to stop!  It will be too hard for them.

Stopping addictions

Charles Duhigg states that the organisation called ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’ is effective in helping people reduce their drinking habits because it examines and shines a very clear light on the cues which trigger drinking in people; and their program deliberately encourages people to identify the cues and rewards that encourages their alcoholic habits, and then assists them as they try to find new behaviours.

So the implied question that AA asks an alcoholic is: “What rewards do you get from alcohol?”

“In order for alcoholics to get the same rewards that they get in a bar, AA has built a system of meetings and companionship – (the ‘Sponsor’ each person works with) – that strives to offer as much escape, distraction and catharsis as a Friday night bender.” (Page 71)

If someone wants to get support from another person, they can receive this by talking to their sponsor or by going to a group meeting, rather than “toasting a drinking buddy”.


A researcher called J. Scott Tonigan has been looking at the work of AA for more than ten years, and he states that if you look at Step 4 of the 12 step program, (which is to make a ‘searching and fearless inventory of ourselves and to admit to God, to ourselves and another human being the exact nature of our wrongs’), then he considers that something crucial is taking place, which he sums up like this:

“It’s not obvious from the way they are written, but to complete those steps, someone has to create a list of triggers for all their alcoholic urges. When you make a self-inventory, you’re figuring out all the things that make you drink…”  The cues!

The rewards of drinking

The AA organisation then asks alcoholics (or alcohol dependent individuals) to look really hard for the rewards they get from alcohol, and the cravings that are behind the behaviour. And what is discovered?

“Alcoholics crave a drink because it offers escape, relaxation, companionship, the blunting of anxieties and an opportunity for emotional release….the physical effects of alcohol are one of the least rewarding parts of drinking for addicts.” (Page 71)

So what AA does is gets you to create new routines for your spare time instead of going out drinking. You can relax and talk through any worries or concerns you might have at the meetings.

The triggers (cues) are the same, and the payoffs (rewards) are the same, it’s just the behaviour that changes,” states Tonigan.

structure-of-a-habitDuhigg includes in his book a summary of a valuable experiment conducted in 2007 by a German neurologist called Muellor. He and his fellow researchers at the University of Magdeburg, identified the specific part of the brain (the basal ganglia) where the habit loop is based, and recruited alcoholics who had been in rehab and had been unable to give up drink. They recruited five alcoholics.

What they did next was embed small electrical appliances into the brains of these men. They put them in the part of the brain where the ‘habit loop’ resides, which is in the basal ganglia.


These appliances gave off a small electrical charge which interrupted the neurological reward sequence that created a craving in people. This stopped the habit loop completely.

After the operations had taken place and the participants had recovered, they were shown a sequence of images. The images were related to their drinking habits, and they were pictures of a glass of beer, or people going into a bar.

When the electrical charges were being run, they stopped the men reacting in their habitual way, and they stopped drinking. And one of the participants told Mueller that when this electrical current was operating on his brain, then his longings for alcohol disappeared.

However these cravings came back as soon as the participants’ brains were not receiving an electrical charge. The participants’ drinking habits returned with full force for four out of the five subjects.


What was noticed was that the participants relapsed when very stressful events happened in their lives, and to curb their anxiety they turned to self-medication: i.e. alcohol.

But the good news was that once they learned new routines for managing their stress, their drinking stopped completely! Some of the participants decided to go for therapy, and one participant started attending AA meetings.

So the men taking part in the experiment embedded these new behaviour patterns, or routines – (going to therapy/learning and using new stress management techniques; or going to the AA meetings) – into their lives, and were successful at managing their alcohol use. And one of the men, who had tried to detox from alcohol sixty times previously and was unsuccessful, found that, after this routine change, he never had another drink.

The result of the experiment

To summarise the value of the experiment, it showed that the former alcoholics only succeeded in eliminating their drinking behaviour because they developed new routines which followed the old triggers (or cues), and gave them their comforting rewards.

Apparently the techniques that were developed by the AA for changing habits have also been successfully applied to children’s temper tantrums, sex addictions and other types of behaviour.

The AA is described in Duhigg’s book as an organisation which creates techniques to change the habits associated with the use of alcohol:

“AA is in essence a giant machine for changing habit loops and though the habits associated with alcohol consumption are extreme, the lessons AA provides demonstrates how almost any habit – even the most obstinate – can be changed.” Charles Duhigg

He makes it clear in his book that overeating, alcoholism, or smoking, are ingrained habits that take real commitment to change. But if you know how your habits are working, this makes it easier to experiment with new behaviours.


Essentially, Duhigg considers that if you look very carefully at the cues (or triggers) and cravings and the rewards that fuel any unhealthy or self-destructive habit that you have, then this scrutiny will help you choose more constructive routines which deliver the same rewards.

The book has several really interesting case studies in it. For example, right at the beginning of the book, Lisa Allen is described. She focussed on one specific pattern – smoking – and this was described as a Keystone habit’. This smoking habit, after being successfully changed by her, led her to reprogram a lot of the other routines in her life as well, because her achievement had a knock-on effect.

What is a ‘keystone’ habit?

Duhigg admits that identifying keystone habits isn’t easy: they are the habits which, if you change them, will give you ‘small wins’. They facilitate new structures of behaviour in someone’s life and start to make it easier to change other, bigger habits. Here are some examples taken from research:

Exercise seems to be a keystone habit that has a beneficial, ‘knock-on’ effect. When people begin exercising, and it can be as little as once a week, they begin to change other, unconnected habits in their lives. It has been discovered that they reduce their smoking, spend money less, and have more understanding for their family and the people they work with.

Exercise spills over“, stated James Prochaska (a University of Rhode Island researcher). “There’s something about it that makes good habits easier.”

Other studies have revealed that families who have their meals together regularly raise children with higher school grades, more emotional control, better homework skills and increased confidence.

Apparently making your bed every morning is also a habit that has a spill over effect. It is correlated with a higher level of happiness, stronger skills at sticking to a budget and a higher level of productivity.


A powerful example

habit-reversal-trainingHere is an example of the full process of habit change.

Mandy, a chronic, nail-biting graduate student who was at the Mississippi State University, went into the counselling centre at the university and they referred her to a doctoral psychology student who was studying a type of therapy called: “habit reversal training.”

What this psychology student got Mandy to do was very simple: He got her to describe what triggered her nail-biting. (That is her cue!) She was asked to describe what she felt just before she lifted her hands to nibble at her nails. (What cued her?)

The answer Mandy gave was that she felt tension in her fingers (the cue) and once she had started to bite her nails to reduce the tension, she felt she couldn’t stop until she had bitten all her nails.

As they talked, it became clear that she bit her nails when she was bored, and as she described a number of situations, it also became apparent that when she had bitten all her nails, she felt a “sense of completeness”. This was a physical experience that was rewarding for her.

At the end of their first session, this psychologist asked Mandy to do some homework:

“Carry an index card and each time you feel the cue – a tension in your fingers – make a check mark on the card”.


The following week she came back to the psychologist and she’d made 28 marks on the card, at times when she was conscious of feeling tension in her finger tips, which was her cue to start biting her nails.

The next thing the psychologist taught Mandy was to create a “competing response”. When she experienced the familiar tension in her fingers (which had always led to her biting her nails), she was to look around quickly for something that would make her unable to put her fingers into her mouth e.g. putting her hands in her pockets, or underneath her legs, or take hold of a pencil.

Then she was to look around for something physically stimulating like rubbing her arms, or any type of physical movement.

The cue – tension in the fingers – stayed the same. But the routine changed (to rubbing and/or physical movement); and the rewards stayed the same (relief from tension in her fingers).

She practised the new routine and when she left the psychologist’s office she was given another homework task. This time, she was to keep using the card to do a checkmark whenever she felt the urge to bite her nails, and to make a hash mark when she succeeded in overcoming her nail-biting habit.


The result: The following week Mandy showed that she had only bitten her nails three times, and had made the competing response  (rubbing arms, or physical movement) seven times. So she rewarded herself with a manicure, and continued using the cards.

After a month had passed, her habit had disappeared, and her new ways of responding to the feelings of tension in her fingers, the “competing responses”, were now totally automatic! One habit had taken the place of the previous habit.


Habit reversal

Here is a quote by Nathan Azrin, who was one of the people who developed habit reversal training:

“It seems ridiculously simple, but once you are aware of how your habit works, once you recognise the cues and the rewards, you’re half-way to changing it.”

Apparently today, habit reversal is used to treat gambling, depression, smoking, anxiety, procrastination, and sex and alcohol addiction etc.

Charles Duhigg makes the point that although the habit process can be simply described, it doesn’t mean that it’s easily changed.


Charles Duhigg states:

“It’s facile to imply that smoking, alcoholism, over-eating or other ingrained patterns can be upended without real effort. Genuine change requires real work and self-understanding of the cravings driving the behaviours. No one will quit smoking because they can sketch a habit loop.

“However, by understanding habits’ mechanisms, we gain insights that make new behaviours easier to grasp. Anyone struggling with addiction or destructive behaviours can benefit from help from many quarters, including trained therapists, physicians, social workers and clergy.

“Much of those changes are accomplished because people examine the cues, cravings and rewards that drive their behaviours and then find ways to replace their self-destructive routines with healthier alternatives, even if they aren’t aware of what they are doing at the time. Understanding the cues and cravings driving your habits won’t make them suddenly disappear – but it will give you a way to change the pattern.” (Page 77)



Why do I think this is such a valuable and useful book for people to read? Its value lies in the way it makes habit change understandable, and this is very hope-inspiring in all of us who have habits we want to change.  And also for those of us who are committed to helping other people change their unwanted habits.

The book also has examples of organisations that tried to develop the habits of their employees to make them create more productive businesses and other very interesting information.

So what habit would you like to change? If you have one specific habit in mind, for example like reducing your weight and as a reward, wearing a particular dress or outfit at Christmas, then what this book gives you are the tools to help you change your behaviour.

It’s very tough to do it on your own, and having a lifestyle coach or counsellor can help you achieve these goals. So that’s where I come in.

Contact me if you’ve got a sense of hope from reading about the techniques I have summarised from this book, and you want to change your life in a positive way.

That’s all for now.

Best wishes,


Renata Taylor-Byrne


The Coaching/Counselling Division

01422 843 629



The Power of Habit – Why we do what we do and how to change. By Charles Duhigg, (2012) London, William Heinemann.

Bargh, J.A. and Chartrand, T.L. (1999) The unbearable automaticity of being.  American Psychologist, 54(7): 462-479.


Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance

Blog Post No. 38

14th September 2016

Copyright © Renata Taylor-Byrne 2016

Renata’s Coaching & Counselling blog: A ‘Rave Review’ of Grit: the Power of Passion and Perseverance by Dr Angela Duckworth


In this blog I want to explain to you why I think this book – Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance – by Angela Duckworth is a great book, and show you how her research can help us in our daily lives, as we try to achieve our goals.

angelas-pictureDr Angela Duckworth is an Associate Professor of psychology, at the University of Pennsylvania. When she was in her second year of graduate school, she started researching the achievements of highly effective people in different areas of life: business, the arts, journalism, medicine, athletics, the law, etc.

She wanted to know if there were any common features that successful people, at the top of these various fields, shared. And so she interviewed the leaders in these different occupations and discovered something which she found of great interest. There was a distinctive way of behaving that they all shared. When they faced failure, in one form or another, they just kept going!

She found that highly successful people were remarkably persevering. They were really hard-working and could bounce back after set-backs. And they knew where they were headed. They were passionate about what they were doing and this drove them on.

In her book she states:

“No matter what the domain, the highly successful had a kind of ferocious determination that played out in 2 ways. Firstly, these exemplars were unusually hard-working and resilient. Secondly, they knew in a very deep way what it was they wanted. They not only had determination – they had direction.”

grit-coverGradually, as the interviews with these highly successful people progressed, she was able to create a series of questions. These questions tried to gauge the extent of someone’s ability to keep going in the face of obstacles, and how passionate they were about their chosen activities.

With these questions, she created a questionnaire called the ‘Grit scale’, and she decided grit – meaning passion and perseverance – was the outstanding feature of the successful people she interviewed. In the scale, she has several questions about perseverance and also questions about passion.

She describes passion as: “…a compass – the thing that takes you some time to build and tinker with and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be”.

Angela Duckworth starts her book with a description of the training of new recruits to the United States Military Academy at West point. She describes highly capable and dedicated cadets, who, in order to be selected, have had to produce excellent high school grades and demonstrate top marks in physical fitness tests.

They have to undergo seven weeks of initial training, which is very rigorous and demanding, and hence is called “Beast Barracks”.

These cadet trainees had applied in their junior year in high school to join the West Point cadets, and although 14,000 apply, this number is cut down to 4,000 who then have to get nominated (by a member of Congress, or a senator, or the Vice-President of the United States). These 4,000 are then reduced because fewer than half will meet the strict academic and physical standards of West Point.

west-point-cadetsFrom this group of approximately 2,500, there is a final group selected of 1,200 who are enrolled and admitted into the academy.

What fascinated Angela Duckworth was the number of trainees who didn’t make it to the end of the training course and she wanted to find out why. During this 7 week training, (which is very strenuous, with no weekends off and no contact with friends and family), there is a drop-out rate of 1 in 5 cadets.

Why was this drop-out rate so high with young recruits who had worked for years to achieve their dream of becoming a West Point cadet for the United States Military?

To find an explanation, she used her own ‘Grit scale’, which I mentioned at the start of this blog, to see if the results achieved by cadets (prior to their training) gave a clue as to who would drop out of the 7 week training, and who would complete the training course successfully.

She administered the test in July 2004 to 1,218 West Point cadets and discovered something remarkable. What she did was to compare the scores on the ‘Grit scale’, which the cadets had achieved, and their ‘Whole candidate scores’.

These ‘Whole Candidate scores’ were the test and exam results that had been collated during the cadets’ lengthy admission process, starting from junior high school onwards. These scores showed the levels of academic ability, physical fitness, plus military fitness predictions.

When she compared the scores for the ‘Grit scale’ and ‘Whole candidate scores’, it became apparent to her that no matter how gifted a cadet was, this was no indication of their Grit level.

Here is a sample  of her Grit scale (all of which can be found on page 55 of her book):



She saw this same pattern (of lack of correlation between talent and grit) repeated in the later scores when she gave the test again the following year. This was her conclusion, based on the results:

The only thing that could successfully predict that a cadet would get through the “Beast barracks” initial training programme was their scores on the ‘Grit scale’, and not their high school rank, or their academic ability, leadership experience, athletic ability or their ‘Whole candidate score’.

She continued her research into the power of grit in the sales profession, which can be a very strenuous training ground. As they try to sell their goods, salespeople constantly get rejection from other people, and have to manage their reactions to this, and keep motivated.

The ‘Grit scale’ predicted the people who stayed the course, in the sales industry. She states:

“No other commonly-measured personality trait – including extraversion, emotional stability and conscientiousness – was as effective as grit in predicting job retention”.

Grit-quote-3.JPGShe also used the test at the request of the Chicago Public Schools Services, and she discovered, through administering the Grit Scale to the students, that the level of grit of the students was a more revealing measure of whether they would graduate or not.

Their level of completion of academic work, or how much they liked school or felt secure in the school environment, was not as good an indicator as the Grit score.


She also completed 2 extensive samples of American adult students, and found that adults who were ‘gritty’ (meaning having high scores on the grit test) were more successful in their academic studies.

Angela Duckworth then initiated a collaboration with the US Army Special Operations Forces, known as the Green Berets. After a very difficult training period, (which included a boot camp, 4 weeks of infantry training, 3 weeks of airborne school, and 4 weeks of day and night land navigation) the recruits then do a Selection Course which she describes as, “Making Beast Barracks look like a summer vacation”.

On the selection course there are daytime and night time challenges, runs and marches, obstacle courses etc. And simply to be chosen for the selection course was an achievement in itself.

However 42% of the candidates that she observed, pulled out of the training of their own free will before the selection course had finished.

She found that a high score on the ‘Grit scale’ predicted who would make it through the Selection Course. So grit in candidates was the best predictor of future success – not talent.

She states: “Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another”.

grit-versus-iq-scoreAfter a number of years teaching, Angela Duckworth could see very clearly that “talent was not destiny”, and she decided to leave teaching for psychology, as she wanted to get really clear about the role that effort made in achievement.

In her book she mentions that Darwin considered that the factors which make up achievement are hard work and enthusiasm, and that they were fundamentally of greater value than intellectual ability.

But she discovered from surveys conducted in America over many years, that, although many people state, and seem to believe, that hard work was more significant a characteristic than intelligence, in fact they actually believed the opposite.

People who were ‘naturally gifted’ were rated more highly than people who were very hard workers. She therefore considered that: “We have an ambivalence towards talent and effort”.

When people rate talent so highly, this means that other factors are considered much less valuable. And this further means that other abilities, including grit, are not valued (or are downgraded).

Angela Duckworth gives examples of the value of grit in two case studies, and I will summarise the example she gives of the progress of Scott Kaufman. Kaufman is a psychologist who now has three degrees and plays the cello for fun.

When he was young he was considered to be a slow learner. He suffered a lot from ear infections and this affected his ability to process information. He was put into special education classes (because of assumed low ability to learn) at school, and had to repeat third grade.

After a nerve-wracking interview with a school psychologist, who gave him lots of tests, he performed badly and was sent to a special education school for children with learning disabilities.

scott-calloutWhen he was fourteen one of the specialist teachers decided to ask Scott why he wasn’t in a more demanding class.

Scott told Angela Duckworth that up until that time, he’d always assumed that because he wasn’t talented, there wouldn’t be much that he could do with his life.

The fact that he met a teacher who believed in his potential was a huge revelation for Scott. At that time he found himself wondering, ”Who am I? Am I a learning disabled kid with no real future? Or maybe something else?”

So what he did then was to try to find the answer to those questions! He enrolled on as many demanding school activities as he could. He joined the choir, and the school musical, and the Latin class. He wasn’t the top in everything, but he learned in the classes.

What Scott learned”, said Angela Duckworth, “was that he wasn’t hopeless.”

As Scott’s grandfather had been a cellist in the Philadelphia orchestra for 50 years, he asked his grandfather if he would give him cello lessons. Scott started practising for 8 or 9 hours a day, not just because he really liked playing, but because:

“I was so driven to just show someone, anyone, that I was intellectually capable of anything. At this point I didn’t care what it was”. (Page 32)

He was so good on the cello that he managed to get a place in the High School orchestra. He then increased his practice even more, and by the end of his second year, he was the second-best cellist in the orchestra; and awards from the Music Department were given to him regularly.

Scott’s classwork marks improved and his enthusiasm and curiosity about new subjects expanded. But he was dogged by his low IQ scores from childhood.

grit-quote2This restriction continued until the day came when he decided to apply to the Carnegie Mellon University. He was fascinated by the concept of IQ and he wanted to study intelligence, so he applied for a cognitive science course.

In spite of the fact that he had very high grades for his work, and lots of achievements from his extracurricular activities, he was rejected. It was apparent to Scott that it had been the results from his SAT scores that had kept him from being offered a place.

However, he was very determined. “I had grit”, he said. “….I’m going to find a way to study what I want to study”. He applied for the Carnegie Mellon Opera programme of study. This was because they didn’t look very hard at SAT scores and focussed on musical aptitude and expression.

So in Scott’s first year he took a psychology course as an elective, and then added psychology as a minor. Then he transferred his major from Opera to Psychology. And then he graduated at the end of the degree course with a high scholastic distinction, in psychology!

Scott Kaufman then went on to earn several more degrees, and to work in an American university as a psychologist. Angela Duckworth shows empathy towards Scott for the following reason:

“Like Scott, I took an IQ test early in my schooling and was deemed insufficiently bright to benefit from gifted and talented classes. For whatever reason – maybe a teacher asked that I be retested – I was evaluated again the following year, and I made the cut. I guess you could say I was borderline gifted.”

She considers that  focussing on the amount of talent an individual has, is a distraction from something of equal value and she considers that “As much as talent counts, effort counts twice.”

Image resultShe quotes Nietzsche’s views on why societies place talent over the hard work ethic.

“Our vanity, our self-love, promotes the cult of the genius. For if we think of genius as something magical, we are not obliged to compare ourselves and find ourselves lacking.”

He wanted people to think of very high achievers as crafts(people).  He wrote this:

“Do not talk about giftedness, (or) inborn talents! One can name great (people) of all kinds who were very little gifted. They acquired greatness, became geniuses…they all acquired the seriousness of the efficient crafts(person)  who first learns to construct the parts properly before they venture to fashion a great whole; they allowed themselves time for it because they took more pleasure in making the little, secondary things well than in the effect of a dazzling whole”.

So what can we take away from Angela Duckworth’s investigation into the concept of ‘grit’? She concludes the book by explaining that you can grow your own grit – and she considers that there are two ways of doing it:

She suggests that you yourself can decide which interest you are going to put your precious time and energy into, link up your work with a wider purpose that benefits others, and learn the value of hope, when situations look bleak.

You can also give yourself daily challenges to develop your skill levels. She describes this as “Growing your grit from the inside out”.

mozarts-dadBut you can also grow your grit level “From the outside in”. This is done by having support from parents, coaches, teachers, bosses, mentors and friends. They can make a great difference. Where would Mozart have been without his musical father?  And where would Bill Gates be without a wealthy lawyer father, and – from 1968 onwards, as an 8th grader – unlimited access to a computer terminal at his private school?  (So grit is very important, but so also is external support, and ‘door openers’ [or people who ‘allow you in’]).


How does knowing about the Grit Scale help us? It means that there is solid research that shows that talent can only take us so far. And there are things that are more important than talent as determinants of success.

With a great start in life, having supportive and encouraging parents, for example, we can develop our natural talents to a high level. But at some point, unless we develop gritty behaviours, we will not develop our talents fully.

The really good news is that if we practice these ‘Gritty behaviours’ shown on Angela’s scale, then we’ll  reap the rewards in terms of completing the courses of study we undertake; and achieving the necessary qualifications; so that we can create solid careers for ourselves.

Or, we can create a richer and more satisfying life for ourselves if we follow our interests with passion and perseverance, whether we earn a wage for it, or not.

Finally, in Angela Duckworth’s book, she describes the findings from journalist Hester Lacey’s interviews with very creative people. Each of them was asked, “What was your greatest disappointment?”

The responses she received to this question were almost always identical:

“Well – I don’t really think in terms of disappointment. I tend to think that everything that happens is something I can learn from. I tend to think, ‘Well, okay. That didn’t go so well, but I guess I will just carry on’.”

A pretty gritty response!

I strongly recommend Angela Duckworth’s TED talk,


and her book, which has lots more interesting things in it (including a generously-shared account by Angela of her own use of grit when a tutor for her degree course advised her to drop the cognitive psychology course she was studying because they didn’t think she was capable of passing it)!

But this is the longest blog I’ve written, and I didn’t want to include any more, as it would be straining your grit muscles too far.

In fact, if you’ve got this far – well done for sticking with my review! And if you do the grit test, it will give you valuable self-knowledge. If you share what you’ve learned about grit and the grit test with someone in your family or a good friend of yours, who may be struggling with a challenge they are facing at the moment, it can really be very helpful for them. The scale shows clearly how you can develop your grit muscles.

Best of luck! Hang in there!

That’s all for now.

Best wishes,


Renata Taylor-Byrne


The Coaching/Counselling Division

01422 843 629



Grit – The Power of Passion and Perseverance. By Angela Duckworth (2016), London, Vermillion.

Outliers – The Story of Success. By Malcolm Gladwell (2008), London, Allen Lane.