Change Just One Thing

Many of us struggle with depression and/or anxiety. I have struggled with these myself on and off for years. Even though we have tried counseling and medication, we may still struggle.

I am getting my master’s degree in counseling. This semester I am taking a counseling course to learn how to perform Brief Therapy. This therapy does not focus on a person’s past, or their family of origin to find out why the person has a problem. Instead, it uses simple techniques to begin solving the problem on day one. It is called brief therapy because clients usually only need a few sessions to begin feeling better and fixing the problem they came in with.

As part of this class, I recently read the book Do One Thing Different: Ten Simple Ways to Change Your Life by Bill O’Hanlon.* This book is brilliant. In Chapter 2, Bill describes a technique for making small changes in your life that create big results. He describes the way many people (me included) try to solve a problem by doing the same action over and over again, even though the problem isn’t solved by the action. He quotes the old adage:

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Tweet This

O’Hanlon gives some really interesting examples of how this can work.

Example 1

A mom of several young children woke up each day feeling tired and cranky. Because of her bad mood, her morning with her husband and kids went badly most days. One day, her husband asked her if she woke up on the wrong side of the bed. She laughed. Later, she thought more about it and thought maybe she did wake up on the wrong side of the bed! The next morning, she got out of the bed on her husband’s side (he was already in the shower). Just beginning her day in this unusual way completely changed her outlook. She no longer felt tired and cranky. This helped her for several weeks. When she found herself cranky again, she decided to get up from the foot of the bed for a while.

Example 2

A man had insomnia for years. He would toss and turn, and finally fall asleep around 4 am. He was exhausted. His therapist suggested that he pair something he hated with insomnia. She asked if there was any household chore he didn’t like. He told her he despised mopping the hardwood floor. She told him next time he has trouble sleeping, get up and mop the floor. That night, he followed her advice. He was up for hours mopping. When he couldn’t sleep the next night, he got up and began mopping the floor again. After about half an hour he got tired. He decided to lay down for a few minutes before finishing the floor. He fell asleep and slept through the night. He never struggled with insomnia again!

Example 3

A couple regularly argued every night when the husband returned home from work. Nothing they tried seemed to stop the arguments. Their therapist suggested the following. Next time they began arguing, the husband was to strip naked and get into the bathtub with no water. The wife would sit next to him on the toilet and they could continue arguing. The next evening, they began arguing as usual. They mutually decided to put the plan into action. The husband stripped down, and climbed into the bathtub. They both started giggling. This broke the pattern of their argument. They tried to resume it, but found they couldn’t. The next night, they did the same thing. After a few days, when one would start an argument, the other would look toward the bathroom. They decided together that they didn’t want to argue (and the husband get naked), so they began finding ways to work out their issues. This one silly, simple action broke the negative pattern they had for years. NOTE: If you are in relationship with an abuser, this technique won’t help you. Abusers seek only power and control. Your partner most likely won’t be willing to try this because it will take away his/her power.

Treating Depression 

The author describes how he used this idea to treat his own depression. He says to imagine an actor or actress “playing” your depression in a movie. What would you tell them to do? How should they dress, what time of day would it be, what should they do to start the scene, and how should they keep it going? He describes how he used to “do” depression when he was in college. First, he would stay in bed as long as he could. If he did happen to get out of bed, he would sit in one place for a long time not moving. He would definitely not exercise because that would endanger his depressive mood. He would isolate himself, and avoid seeing anyone. If he absolutely had to see someone, he would only talk about his depression. He asks, “This would be a good recipe for depression, wouldn’t it?”

Here are six questions he recommends we ask ourselves in order to discover a pattern that is a problem for us:

  1. How often does the problem typically happen, (once an hour, day, week)?
  2. What is the usual timing (of the day, week, month, year) of the problem?
  3. How long does the problem typically last?
  4. Where does the problem typically happen? (Living room, kitchen, bathroom, at work, in your car?)
  5. What do you do when the problem is happening? (Pound the table, leave the room, call a friend, isolate yourself, rush for food or coffee?)
  6. What do others who are around when the problem is happening usually do or say? (Give advice, blame you or someone else, use a certain voice tone?)

Once you have a clear idea of the negative pattern, ask yourself: What could I do that would be a noticeable change from my usual pattern? Tweet This

The author once told a woman who was bingeing and vomiting (symptoms of bulimia) to put on her favorite pair of shoes before she vomited. She did this, and taking time to put on the shoes gave her time to think about what she was doing, rather than doing it automatically. She was able to break this pattern. I used to chew my knuckles when I worked at the computer or read. It helped me concentrate. Recently, I put a piece of silly putty on my desk. Now, I pull on the silly putty instead of my knuckles. My hands have never looked so good!

If you are depressed, how could you use this idea? If you stay in bed and isolate yourself when you are depressed, you could try to get up and leave the house, get some exercise or meet a friend. I know, easier for me to say than for you to do, right? If those are too difficult, try moving to another room in the house, one with a lot of sunlight. If you eat chocolate or chips when you are depressed, then feel even more depressed about gaining weight, munch on some carrot sticks or salad. The healthy food may raise your spirits, and the change in pattern might help you come out of your depression.

Treating Anxiety

O’Hanlon talks about how using a “paradoxical intervention” can sometimes treat things like anxiety. Here are a couple of examples of how this can work.

Example 4

A young woman was afraid to leave her home because she thought she would wet her pants if she wasn’t near a toilet. This fear had debilitated her so much that she rarely left her home. If she did leave, she would map out all the public toilets on the route to her destination. Her mother agreed to drive only on these approved routes. One day her father wanted to take her somewhere. She made him promise to take only the approved route. When they began driving, he deviated from the planned route and took the highway. His daughter was livid he had lied to her. She insisted he let her out of the car that instant. He said, “This is ridiculous! You are not going to wet your pants! I will give you $100 right now if you can pee in my car.” His daughter really needed that $100, and since she was furious with him, she tried her hardest to pee in his car. But she COULDN’T! She calmed down and they enjoyed their time together.

Example 5

A high school was putting on a play where one of the characters stuttered. One of the school’s students stuttered, so they asked him to play the part. He was excited by the idea since he had always wanted to act. When he tried to deliberately stutter, he was UNABLE to!

O’Hanlon summarizes this method by saying that to change a problem pattern, try to make it worse, either more intense or more frequent. Or, simply try to make the problem happen. So, if you are prone to panic attacks, try to force yourself to have one. If you struggle with anxiety, choose a time when you are NOT anxious, and try to make yourself anxious. Or, simply stop trying to avoid the problem, and allow it to happen. Trying one of these paradoxical actions could limit or stop your anxiety.

A Word of Caution

I am excited about the simplicity of this method, and that sufferers can often get quick relief from it. These techniques may not work for everyone. It is possible that if you suffer from depression or anxiety, you might need professional counseling and/or psychotropic medications. If that is the case, check out this article.

Question: Would you be willing to try one of these “off-the-wall” activities to try to heal your depression or anxiety?

God wants us to live in peace. There are many bible verses that tell us not to be anxious, because we can trust in Him. At the same time, all wisdom is God’s wisdom. If these interventions help you, wonderful. If you need counseling or medication, there is no sin in that.

“I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

Cast your cares on the Lord
    and he will sustain you;
he will never let
    the righteous be shaken.  Psalm 55:22

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Colossians 3:15

I pray these interventions may help you with your depression or anxiety. Bless you all today.



*O’Hanlon, B. (2000). Do One Thing Different: Ten Simple Ways to Change Your Life. New York:HarperCollins Publishers.


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