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  • Dr. Lalit Chawla

E#4: Triggers: How to Implement a New Habit & Change Emotional Triggers


This episode focuses on how to help individuals create greater attention and focus so that implementing the desired change is sustainable. I'll uncover emotional and physical triggers so we can leverage them to our advantage. This is a really cool concept and fun to use.

Switching our habits and desires: OFF or ON?

(This is the core of the transcript from the podcast. The Intro has been removed and some areas improved for reading ease.)


In the last podcast (Episode 3), I talked about the Four Core areas in a person's life that influence change and that these four areas are all interconnected. The first two make up our Inner world: Our Inner Psychology (our values, beliefs, memories, imaginations, etc.), and Our Physical Body. The other two aspects are part of what I call our External World: Our Physical environment (such as weather, the air we breathe, the physical space and the food/nutrition we take in) and The People Environment (Such as the people we interact with). I also discussed the critical interconnected factor which is whatever happens in one area influences the other three areas. So, for example, if we start eating healthier, our physical state will change, which will improve our psychology and will improve our outlook on life. However, the reverse is true too; and each of us knows this all too well. If you eat garbage food, you'll feel less energetic and over time you're physical health will suffer. It's not rocket science, but it is common sense. Sadly, common sense is not always common practice.

Another example is, if you had a great work space and then suddenly, you had to change to a tight and noisy work space. Your productivity and energy would decrease long term. It's essential to identify that these are the four areas of change exist, not only in our personal lives but also as a clinicians. When trying to help a patient, it's helpful to suggest areas that are natural to them so they can improve their life with greater ease, so they can be one step closer to living with greater harmony and health. Because we know one small change has a ripple effect in so many other areas.

The big outstanding question is: How do we trigger a change to happen so that the shift occurs on a more consistent level? How do we inspire a ‘Habit of Health’?

The big outstanding question is: How do we trigger a change to happen so that the shift occurs on a more consistent level? How do we inspire a ‘Habit of Health’? So, I think the most significant problem we face, both as individuals and in terms of helping patients, is, how to increase a person's awareness and attention about the necessity of health or lifestyle issues that they specifically need to change.

So for example, acknowledging the need to make an improvement in one’s life, and sitting down to determine which areas need addressing is one thing. Do we need to eat better? Do we need to move around more? Do we need to connect with our friends and families more frequently? Perhaps social media should command less of our time. Devising a way to manifest daily tangible changes into a sustainable change, can be quite another challenge altogether.

You can have all the desire you want to create a change, but if you don't know how to make it happen or how to increase your attention and focus, then you'll fall off the pathway to success. You may be trying to form a habit that you're psychologically committed to, but if you don’t or can’t remember to institute that in your daily routine on a consistent basis you'll easily regress to old routines. Most have been there before. We were so committed to a diet or exercise only to find ourselves three months later couched out in front of Netflix covered in chocolate or cheeto dust. We all have things to improve, and we all have excuses why we were unable to improve them. Like: “I forgot”, “I was very busy”, or “darn I never said I was going to do that!” The fact remains that if you don’t make a ‘habit’ of the new changes, the old unwanted habits will return.

You can have all the desire ...but if you don't know how to make it happen or how to increase your attention and focus, then you'll fall off the pathway to success.

You know how it goes, you keep forgetting to drink more water, you know you have to pay more attention to your spouse and spend more time with them. You know you have to show more affection, but you forget. Things get busy at home-you're putting the garbage away you're helping with other chores, and you say, "oh my goodness I forgot, I'll do that tomorrow and tomorrow turns to weeks, months and years" and over time the relationship suffers. So this is where the concept of triggers comes in, where we can implement the small changes we want by leveraging natural cues in our environment.

What are triggers?

We all have naturally inherit triggers all around us all the time, and for simplicity sake, I group it into two categories, which are: Physical Triggers and Emotional Triggers. They can be either positive or negative, and they can be either be conscious or unconscious.

If you look at any individual who wants to give make a genuine effort at a chosen improvement, you’ll find that their initial steps were very strong and often methodical to achieve their desired change “Failure was not an option”… at least for a little while. In other words, people who want to change behaviour, usually have done it even if it was merely for a short period. They had a mind-set, a determination to succeed. They were in a particular emotional state or had modified their physical environment to support their new change that remained consistent with their objectives. But when these new parameters fell away, new behaviors gave way to old, well-worn habits. How many people have you heard say: "You know I quit smoking once” or “I used to exercise regularly but stopped” or “I used to be more involved with my spouse and kids but I stopped making the time". In order to continue desired behaviors it is important to ask yourself a few questions. What state or environment were you in when you were making those desired changes? What physical and emotional triggers did you have that kept you on track? Were there any emotional or physical triggers that took you off track?

Let’s take someone who smokes as an example If every time they coughed, they felt bad enough to motivate themselves to quit smoking. Part of that transition would have to be removing themselves from a social circle where smoking was acceptable. They would identify those factors that caused them to smoke so they substituted that with a better choice. They would leverage emotional and physical triggers to keep the change consistent.

I, Lalit Chawla, couldn't keep up to my 5-year-old daughter in the park ... and frankly, I was a little embarrassed as well.

Let's talk about how we can use our physical environment to implement a change. Here is a personal example from my life. Several years ago, I realized my energy was becoming depleted and I wasn't as focused in all areas of my life as I wanted to be. I couldn't keep up to my 5-year-old daughter in the park and I knew I wanted to change that so I could improve the way I was able to interact with her. One part of that equation was that I knew I was not drinking enough water during the day and was drinking too much coffee and soda pop. The huffing and puffing from just trying to keep up with her was enough of a motivation for me to change and frankly, I was a little embarrassed as well.

I was emotionally and intellectually committed to making the change of increasing my water intake, (along with instituting a better exercise regimen) but I would constantly forget the new habit I was trying to form. The day would come to a close and I would realize "gosh, I didn't drink any water!" How I fixed this was by implementing visible triggers in my environment that would serve as memory or signposts, which would act as little physical alarm bells/reminders, to alert me to drink water.

So I started off by taking a big glass of water and placing it beside my night table so that when I woke up I had to take a drink of water. I'm not a guzzler so I took a couple of big sips, brushed my teeth, then took two more big sips, showered then took some more sips...etc. And before I hit the breakfast table, I had drank about 750 mL of water. Then when I am at work, I keep a big glass right in front of me and I take a sip every 20-30 minutes. I do that through the whole day. When I come home, I use the doorknob as a physical trigger. I actually visually see it as a water bottle door, and once I open it, I have to go to the sink right away to drink a glass of water. These were, and still, are firm physical triggers that I implement to decrease the barrier and to serve as a reminder to drink water.

Once I implemented these physical anchors, I was able to achieve that change of increased water consumption consistently, day after day, week after week, and year after year. By the way, I've shared this routine with patients who also have implemented it in their lives to increase their water consumption.

"what you focus on is what you will get."

I know many runners who go to bed wearing their shorts and t-shirts and have their running shoes at their bed, so it's that much easier to go for their run as soon as they wake up. It removes one more barrier that may keep them from doing their morning run.

And whether we are aware of it or not, we all have these physical cues that automatically clicks on a particular emotion or behaviour within us. For instance, when we see cookies on the counter we have a greater tendency to grab one; When we are around fit people, we feel we want to be fit too; When we hear people talking negative gossip, we are influenced by that and the negativity fills our minds as well., All these have a massive impact on our thinking, which ultimately plays out in our behaviours.

Now let's say you want to change the way you start your day by improving the way you approach your morning routines., How could you do that? One way is that you can use your shower to trigger how you set the day up — for example, by asking a couple of vital empowering questions such as; "what can I do today that can make my day fun?” or “What can I get excited about today?” Or “Who am I going to show some appreciation to today or how can I show it to them better?"

When you're brushing your teeth, you can ask yourself (with your mouth closed of course) "What three things am I grateful for with myself, my personal life and my work life." These are natural triggers that can shape the way we change our thinking. As the old saying goes, "what you focus on is what you will get." And if you don't choose what you focus on you won't focus on anything, then your external world or other people will do it for you.

By the way, focusing on better routines in the morning is critical to setting up your day for success. When you are mentally prepared for the challenges ahead, you will be far less likely to be caught off guard. So I believe in scheduling my morning routines, because we all know, that if you don't schedule it, it won't be done.

Here are two simple questions to ask when trying to help create the physical triggers that will help create or anchor a new behaviour.

1. "Are there any environmental triggers that are hindering you from creating the desired behaviours you want? (example, easy access to junk food; coffee maker brewing in your office all the time; friends tempting you with toxic substances or gossip etc.)

2. "What physical triggers are already available that you can start using?" And remember it can be a person too. For example, every time I see my wife before leaving the house, I give her a little hug and tell her that I'm going. And every Friday I have positive conversation time set up with my Growth Friend Chris.

"would you eat that donut (or pick your favourite food) if it was surrounded by feces, vomit and bugs "

Let's talk about Emotional Triggers

Emotional triggers also have a significant impact on us, say when we see donuts, sugary drinks, junk food, or drinking too much caffeine or alcohol etc.. Eating (or drinking) fulfills many basic human needs; whether it's comfort or hunger or boredom or pick some other emotion that food will fulfill. Hunger is generally a good need, so that's important, but the negative emotional eating or drinking may fill your yummy sensation short term, but not long term. So how do you change that thinking or emotion? Where you may know the donut is bad for you, yet your desire to eat it fulfills the loving yummy sensations you have.

So, the one way I help patients change their affinity to unhealthy food, is by changing the way the food looks to them by changing their emotional response to it. I ask them, "would you eat that donut (or pick your favourite food) if it was surrounded by feces, vomit and bugs all around it, even if none of those things even touched it? The response is always a repulsive facial gesture. Now imagine that same donut, and you bit into it and the jelly that you liked so much was actually red transmission oil or blood" You can literally see people's faces change during my descriptions. By the time I'm done with that exercise they've developed a negative aversion for the donut. Then I tell them to think about these images before they consider buying or eating their next donut. I also tell them to practice this a few times when they don't have a craving to eat a donut. I have one patient who now stops eating Paczki because he can't get that horrible visual; I shared with him, out of his head. That's how powerful using imagination and emotional connection can be.

I use the same idea with coffee and ask them if they would drink Engine Oil if it was put in a Starbucks cup or Tim Horton's cup. Invariably, their answer is no. Next time you drink coffee, try to imagine a nice refreshing cup of 10W30 engine oil! Doing this type of exercise will change your emotional connection to that particular food substance.

This technique works incredibly well to help people discover what triggers they might have that may lead them do something such as emotional eating. Personally, I'm guilty of desiring tasty deserts. I have a sweet tooth, and when I'm bored or stressed I'll eat and I know that I'll use food to change my emotional state. However, now I'm able to pause and make a better decision. I'm able to create better attention to that point of change.

Here are some key ‘trigger questions’ you can use to help figure out what a patient's emotional triggers are. Once you are aware of them, then you can create better attention moments where you can remold them.

I've put it in a simple acronym LEAD.

Triggers that make me feel LOVED

Triggers that make me feel EXCITED/ENERGIZED

Triggers that make me feel ANGRY

Triggers that make me feel DOWN/DEPRESSED

Of course, you can put any positive or negative emotion in that question to help increase your attention and awareness to what is influencing your desired behavioural change. Once you've gained greater insight, then you can create more significant triggers, signposts, red flags or markers in your day to implement your new change.

So that's it, a straightforward and essential concept you can use to help people implement a change or remove a change in their life.

Here is the Summary:

1. Awareness and attention are both necessary for creating a change. Once a person has awareness that a change needs to happen, then they need to pay daily attention to implement that change.

2. Help an individual make a change by identifying the triggers in their life and then leverage the two types of Triggers that exist, Physical Triggers and Emotional Triggers.

3. Know that emotions are such a significant force in creating sustainable change. If you remember the four core areas (See Episode#3), you can pull from those areas to help create a trigger. For example: having a workout buddy; a growth friend who you talk to; or remove junk food from your house. Change your negative or disempowering self-talk. Establish a routine, start small even if it's just a minute. It's more important to establish a trigger until it becomes a part of your new ritual.

4. For Physical Triggers, there are two simple questions to ask

-"Are there any physical triggers that are hindering you to create the desired behaviours you want? (Example: easy access to junk food; negative gossip in the workplace; or negative self-talk)

- "What physical triggers are already there that you can start using?"

5. For Emotional Triggers, remember the LEAD acronym question: What triggers make you feel Loved, Excited, Angry or Depressed. Remember, you can't change something if you don't know how you are emotionally attached you are to it.

I hope this podcast served you in some way, if you've enjoyed listening to this podcast, please share with a friend or colleague and subscribe to us in Spotify, Breaker, Apple Podcasts, or your favourite podcast app. And please don't forget to leave a rating, I know it' seems like a small thing, but it makes a difference in terms of helping others find this podcast. I'm Dr. Lalit Chawla and thank you so much for listening. Let's together make a greater more effective community and inspire people to live with Greater Harmony, Joy and Magic in their lives.

Tell me what you liked about this podcast and what would you like to hear in future episodes. I'd love to hear your comments and feedback.

Thank you and Have a Great Week!

Lalit Chawla

(A special thanks to the talented William Brown who edited the above transcript)


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