A Trauma Informed Approach to Setting Goals

Oct 26, 2022

Ready to create new habits and see real change?

I’ve never been able to commit to goal setting. It’s true. 

Why? Well, it could be for a number of reasons:

  • One, I’m a bit of a dreamer and created goals that were simply unattainable. 
  • Two, for a long time I wasn’t disciplined enough to strategically plan things out and then not procrastinate (a symptom of a dysregulated nervous system and brain). 
  • Three, I believe for a while there was a subconscious pattern of my nervous system that sought out circumstances that kept me stressed, overwhelmed and in survival mode.
  • And four, in my messy years of recovery when my self-worth was at its all-time low, I naturally gravitated to things that proved I wasn’t good enough.

Bottom line, when chaos and survival becomes your normal, organization and thriving feels abnormal. But it’s that organization and ease that sustainable goal setting requires. So if you’ve been in a season where you feel like you just can’t commit, you just keep failing, or the needle simply won’t move–please know that makes sense. Your nervous system makes sense.

Since this is something we likely all struggle with, I wanted to provide you with some gentle tips to start seeing real change in your life. Hint: it’s not about willpower. Good habits happen when we set ourselves up for success. Here’s how to do just that…

Start Small.

When we’re healing from trauma, we’re ultimately working to regulate our nervous system (otherwise known as getting “unstuck” from states of fight, flight, or freeze). When we’ve been in these chronic states of survival, our nervous system is more sensitive or more easily overwhelmed by change because change is unfamiliar, which your nervous system can perceive as a threat.

This is why BIG changes in diet and lifestyle rarely last. Instead our nervous systems need to be stretched, not stressed. This process of baby-stepping toward your goals is called titration, a term born from chemistry and borrowed for healing by the creator of Somatic Experiencing, Peter Levine. He considered how in chemistry, compounds are combined one drop at a time (called titration) so as to avoid a chemical reaction. 

Your nervous system operates in the same way. If change happens too quickly, your nervous system becomes overwhelmed and dysregulated even more.

So how can you create new habits with less friction? Healing Hub coach Meg, often shares the story of how her sister-in-law, who was never a runner, became a marathon runner. She shares that for a week or two, she would start by simply setting her alarm early and then turning it off and going back to bed. The next two weeks, she would wake up early and put on her running clothes, then take them back off and go back to bed. The next two weeks, she’d run short distances, and so on. Today, she’s a frequent marathon runner and will even be running the Boston Marathon soon!

This is the perfect example of starting slow and setting yourself up for sustainable success.

Do it every day.

Your nervous system guides your behaviors, and your nervous system itself is guided by your subconscious impulse–aka your habits. Habits take time to change because it requires creating new neural pathways in the brain that become your default. Current research shows that this process can take 90 days of repetition. This is especially true after the age of 25, when our brain has fully developed. This is also why adult learning is so hard to do! So, commit to something small and commit to it frequently, until it doesn’t feel like work anymore. 

Stack your commitment.

With the intention of stretching and not stressing your nervous system, think of stacking your new habits or commitments onto your existing routines. 

For example, your morning routine could be a great place to start. A morning cup of coffee, can create an opportunity to begin a one-minute body-sensory practice. Or, while you’re on your way to school pick-up, that could be a great time to listen to the audio version of the book you’ve been wanting to read. Many of us fall into end-of-the-day patterns as well. Cooking dinner might be the perfect opportunity to spend quality time with your partner. 

Whatever your process looks like, continue to offer yourself lots of grace and room to grow. It doesn’t have to look perfect, and you might even fail sometimes–-but that doesn’t mean you’re a failure! Change takes time. Keep going, you got this.

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