Neuroplasticity Training Tip: Perform an Incompatible Behavior

This tip is a continuation of yesterday’s tip about management versus training. Sometimes you can do BOTH management and training at the same time!

“Performing an incompatible behavior” is a great trick to get your brain doing something other than the undesirable behavior AND it is usually also a way to train a response that is different from your previous, undesirable/dysfunctional reaction.

Performing an incompatible behavior is a four-step process.

1. First you have to check in with WHAT you’re brain is doing that you don’t like. Try to name it.

This could be: feeling anxious/tight/constricted, ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts, hyperventilating, fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator, predicting a bad outcome, fixating on an unpleasant smell, causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat, etc.

2. Then think, “What would be the OPPOSITE of this?”

You might come up with any of these:

The opposite of “feeling anxious/tight/constricted” may be feeling loose/relaxed/open.

The opposite of “ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts” may be feeling hopeful or imagining a wonderful moment in the future, or feeling grateful or thinking about a time someone was kind to you.

The opposite of “hyperventilating” may be breathing slowly, deeply, and calmly.

The opposite of “fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator” may be focusing your thoughts on a really absorbing activity that is not in your kitchen.

The opposite of “predicting a bad outcome” may be focusing on anything happy or confidence-inspiring.

The opposite of “fixating on an unpleasant smell” may be (again) focusing on anything else that excludes that, especially ignoring all smells at all or could be focusing on enjoyable things you see or hear or touch.

The opposite of “causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat” may be feeling warm and relaxed and soft in your belly and open and free in your throat.

3. Then, decide what behavior would get your body/brain into the desired state. 

Generally speaking, you want to do something that requires active focus and concentration, if possible, and something enjoyable. I often find that vigorous or careful physical activity work best because I have to really be focused on what my body is doing. Studying a topic you care passionate about, playing a musical instrument or singing, doing an interesting and complex puzzle or game (usually solo because you don’t want to have flights of fancy while someone else takes a turn), painting or other artwork, or an intense interpersonal interaction (giving someone empathy, playing with a very active child) are all good.

Activities that are passive or in which you can “multi-task” usually don’t work as well. So, for example, watching TV, talking on the phone, or checking email are often not focused enough because your mind can still wander back to the undesirable location.

Continuing with the examples I gave above, you might decide to try these activities as incompatible behaviors:

The opposite of “feeling anxious/tight/constricted” may be feeling loose/relaxed/open.

I feel relaxed and open when I dance. Dancing is exercise, so it releases cortisol. It’s joyous and open and active, and the music can be loud. When I am dancing, I am just present in my body and not ruminating. Dancing is my go-to FAVORITE activity that is incompatible with anxiety, tension, rumination, worrying, etc.! You could use dancing for anything on this list!

The opposite of “ruminating on hopelessness or past hurts” may be feeling hopeful or imagining a wonderful moment in the future, or feeling grateful or thinking about a time someone was kind to you.

You could use the DNRS steps for this because the memory and visualization part very often involve great joy, appreciation, hope. If you wanted an antidote specifically to ruminating on past hurts, I would pick a memory or visualization involving someone you really love who has treated you with kindness, respect, or caring at one time that you recall clearly.

The opposite of “hyperventilating” may be breathing slowly, deeply, and calmly.

For this, you can belly breathing; talking to someone in a very slow, calm, relaxed way; yoga; breathing into a paper bag; or any exercise, especially bilateral exercise, such as walking (especially outdoors or somewhere beautiful that distracts you from yourself) or swimming or ping pong!

The opposite of “fixating on the chocolate cake in your refrigerator” may be focusing your thoughts on a really absorbing activity that is not in your kitchen.

Again, pretty much anything that is mentally absorbing and enjoyable that is not in your kitchen would work, although I think the best thing is something physically active because that gets the same calming brain chemicals going as are stimulated by eating. (Dancing!) Some that I use are walking the dog, reading something fascinating, playing Lumosity, or doing dog training homework.

The opposite of “predicting a bad outcome” may be focusing on anything happy or confidence-inspiring.

Again, this is a perfect one for DNRS steps because you end up focused on your happy memory and then future visualization, which contradicts predicting bad outcomes. You could also connect with a person or animal who makes you feel happy. You could do a power pose for two minutes, which increases confidence and lowers stress. Or, you know, DANCING. You can also make yourself laugh or make a joke to yourself and then laugh at it.

The opposite of “fixating on an unpleasant smell” may be (again) focusing on anything else that excludes that, especially ignoring all smells at all or could be focusing on enjoyable things you see or hear or touch.

For this one, if I’m able, I will do DNRS, if I can. If I can’t because there are people around and I’d feel too self-conscious, I engage them in conversation by asking a question to which I think they’ll give a long answer. Then I listen intently to them. I also have used focusing on my other senses (enjoying what I see and hear or feel with my fingers), looking at pictures of Barnum when he was a puppy, or DANCING.

The opposite of “causing butterflies in your stomach and tightness in your throat” may be feeling warm and relaxed and soft in your belly and open and free in your throat.

For this one, anything that gets you moving and open and relaxed. Yoga is my go-to behavior for this one. Singing is good, too, because it opens your throat up. Dancing, of course. Any movement, such as walking, would get the muscles looser and reduce the anxiety and stress hormones. Doing several big sighs or yawns opens the throat and also stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which calms and relaxes the body.

4. DO IT!!!!!!!!

I was recently telling a friend about how I use dancing as a behavior incompatible with feeling anxious and shut down. (The process of going off of several drugs that have anxiety as a withdrawal symptom has made me really good at working on this one.) She said, “But how do you make yourself do it?”

Here’s how I do it.

I think, “I feel anxious. This feels terrible. I want to make this go away but I’M TOO ANXIOUS TO DO DNRS! I CAN’T FOCUS! AUGH!!!!

WHAT CAN I DO??? Wait a minute… What can I do?…

Umm, I can dance….

I NEED TO DANCE!!!!!!!”

Then I go put a dance CD on, or if someone else is around, I get my iPod. I turn up the music REALLY REALLY LOUD. I dance around like a maniac. I start smiling. I start feeling more relaxed. I sweat. When I feel all warm and relaxed and happy, I can stop, but I usually keep going till I don’t want to dance anymore. Then I do whatever else is on the day’s agenda.


What say you? Leave a comment!