Stop Pulling Your Hair Out! — How to Really Help a Family Member Make Healthy Changes

Healthy Changes
Dr. Geoffrey Harris, MD

Whether it’s getting someone to stop smoking, take their medications, or drop some weight, helping people to make healthy changes is not easy. Here’s how physicians typically look at the process.

The Stages of Change

In this stage, a person has no intention to make a change. Typically, a person in this stage doesn’t recognize a need for change and doesn’t think they have a problem.

When someone begins to think about making a change. Typically, people begin to weigh the pros and cons of a change in this stage.

Decision to Change
This is an important step because it marks the point at which a person has become committed to change.

An individual will start to do things that leads to the change.

Since we are human, any change is not a simple process. There will be ups and downs to any process of change. The relapse stage is important for managing frustration — and even depression — when trying to achieve success.

This is not a simple stage. Often individuals alternate between relapse and maintenance throughout the rest of their lives.

How You Can Help

One of the most important points for loved ones to realize about this process is that patience, persistence, and support are crucial during all the stages. Maintaining a non-judgmental attitude that does not focus on negativity is also very important to help someone make a change.

The pre-contemplative stage is an especially difficult one — and the one that often frustrates supportive family members — because people in this stage are often defensive and unwilling to even consider change.

“Should-statements” often aggravate and even discourage change: “You should get out of the house and move more if you want to lose that extra weight.” Those kinds of statements just make a person feel badly, which doesn’t help. Nagging, suggesting, or pushing tend to actually have an opposite effect and can cause people to “dig in their heels” to resist further.

However, asking a person in the pre-contemplative stage what they think about their current habits can be helpful because it forces them to really take stock of the situation and suggest solutions on their own. Information can sometimes help as well, especially when it comes from an independent source. A magazine article, news program, online video — or even a complete stranger — can offer the exact same information you have, but because it’s not coming from a person the family member has no emotional baggage with, it’s easier for him or her to hear, understand, and accept. There’s plenty of psychology behind that behavior, but suffice it to say that it can work.

As a physician, I have found it is always important to tell a patient that a change would be worthwhile and healthy. I always recommend calmly telling someone how you feel about their habits and offering to help them should they have a desire to change.

Unfortunately, there is little anyone can do to help another person until they have reached the contemplative stage. Once a person is contemplating a change there are many things that can be done to encourage and facilitate a healthy lifestyle.

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