As a trauma therapist I quickly came to understand that if we could just “stop” thinking or behaving or feeling a certain way… most of the time… we would!

Healing is more than just “mind over matter”… trauma is held somatically, affecting us at a cellular level. Healing is “unlearning” patterns that no longer serve us and developing new patterns. Trauma can become stuck in the body and cause somatic pain and serious health issues. For many of us the idea of healing from our deep wounds is overwhelming. So let me just say for those of you who may be reading this and are at the beginning…. Please hear me…. There is ALOT more than just changing your habits that is involved in healing the body and the nervous system.

However, making little changes in our day to day and in how we care for ourselves and regulate our emotions and our nervous system is a major part of the work we do in healing!

So… Where do we even begin?
First, if you’re healing from trauma… please find a professional who works with the mind/body/soul connection to do this work with. (Check out links at the end).

But what can you begin to do today? I recently read Atomic Habits by James Clear. The concepts he describes around changing habits seem so simple but they are profound! James shares his own story and how his life’s work is a culmination of his own discovery in his healing process.

So I want to begin by acknowledging that changing “habits” or really “behaviors” is a process. Not a “flip of a switch.” Accompanying our soul level work can be simple things.
Daily. simple. changes.

A habit is a routine or behavior that is performed regularly, and sometimes automatically.

It is vital to understand that changes that seem small and unimportant at first will compound into remarkable results if you’re willing to stick with them for days, months, and eventually years. It becomes a different way of being.

The reality is that we all deal with struggles in this life, but in the long run, the quality of our lives often depend in the quality of our habits… the choices we have made every day of our lives. There may have been a time when there weren’t “choices” but someone else was choosing for us. Or maybe we were not conscious that we actually had a choice to do something different. This concept is not so simple if our patterns began in childhood, patterns that have perhaps been modeled for us, instilled in us, imprinted into our hearts through our attachment experience. But the amazing truth is we can begin to realize the choices we have in the NOW! We can be empowered to rescue those younger parts of us that needed an adult to protect them, love them, to see their needs and make healthy choices.

You have the power to change that now. But it will take time. Small steps. I promise with small changes… anything is possible!

The concept of an “Atomic” habit comes from the understanding that tiny changes make a big difference! I’d like to unpack this more from a therapeutic perspective.

In the first chapter of “Atomic Habits,” James Clear explains the “The aggregation of marginal gains” created by Dave Brailsford. Those are a lot of big words. Mr Brailsford said if you broke down everything you could think of and worked at improving it by 1% every day, you will get a significant increase when you put all those small changes together!

Too often we convince ourselves that massive change requires massive action. The idea of this is overwhelming! And often feeds the negative self belief of “I’ll never be enough.” Our nervous systems can go into a fight or flight response of urgency, searching for control and perfection. We can slip into a freeze, procrastinating and becoming stuck in overwhelm of all the changes that need to be made. Some may even slip into a dorsal response of shut down, “it’s too much so why even try?”

Trauma can cause black and white rigid thinking. Whether we want to heal from our past, have healthier relationships, better coping skills, better health, a new job or business, want to write a book, or achieve any other goal, we put pressure on ourselves to make earth-shattering improvement.

James describes how a slight change in your daily habits can guide your life to a very different destination. This same thinking can apply to your mental and emotional health and healing. Making a choice that is 1% different…. better or worse seems insignificant, but over the span of moments that make up a lifetime these choices determine the difference between who you are and who you want to be. Healing is the outcome of daily choices toward something different… not a once-in-a-lifetime transformation.

What matters most is what you are doing today to heal. These actions are putting you on the path toward your destination. Learn to be far more concerned with your current trajectory rather than with your current situation, for what you focus on you will find.

If you want to predict where you will be all you have to do is follow the curve of tiny changes and growth OR tiny losses and repeated patterns and see how your daily choices will compound a few weeks, months, or years down the road.

Time magnifies the margin between health and continued dysfunction and painful patterns. It will multiply whatever you feed it. Positive changes make time your ally. Destructive patterns make time your enemy.

“Habits” are also a double-edged sword. Harmful habits can cut you down just as easily as healthy habits can build you up, which is why understanding the details is crucial.

Your choices compound for you or against you:

Positive Compounding
Accomplishing one small step… is a small feat on any given day, but it amounts for a lot over an entire lifetime. The effect of automating an old pattern or mastering a new skill can be even greater. The more healthy tools and skills you can handle without thinking, the more your brain is free to focus on other areas.

Stress Compounding
The frustration of work, difficult relationships or even traffic jams, and the weight of parenting responsibilities can add up. What about the worry of finances? By themselves, these common stressors may be overwhelming or maybe they seem manageable. But when they persist for years, little stressors compound into serious health issues.

Knowledge Compounding
Learning one new idea won’t make you a genius, but a commitment to lifelong learning can be transformative! Furthermore, each book you read, podcast you listen to, therapy session you attend… not only teaches you something new but also opens up different ways of thinking about old ideas. This lays down new structure to organize your thoughts and see the world and your experiences.

Negative thoughts compound
The more you think of yourself as unlovable, worthless, stupid, or ugly, the more you condition yourself to interpret life that way. You get trapped into a thought loop. The same is true for how you think about others. Once you fall into the habit of seeing people as angry, unjust, scary or selfish, you will see those kind of people everywhere. It is painful to realize that the thoughts we have about ourselves and others actually help to contribute to the patterns that have been created in our past.

Relationship compounds
People reflect your behavior back to you. The more you help others, the more others want to help you. Being a little bit nicer in each interaction can result in a network of broad and strong connections over time.

Outrage compounds
Riots, protests, and mass movements are rarely the result of a single event. Instead, a series of micro aggressions and daily aggravation slowly multiply until one event tips the scales and outrage spreads like wildfire.

Breakthrough moments are often the result of many previous actions, which build up the potential to unleash a major change.

Author James Clear explains that when we think about the hallmark of a compounding process, it’s important to understand that the most powerful outcomes are usually delayed. We can really feel this when we are healing from trauma or working on making changes in difficult relationship patterns.

In order to make a meaningful difference, habits need to persist long enough to create consistency, creating new experiences and break through mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Even when you can’t “see” the change you’re wanting…. Trust the process! Your work is not being wasted. It’s just being stored.

Mastery requires patience and time.

All big things come from small beginnings. The seed of every habit sprouts a single, tiny decision. But as a decision is repeated, a habit sprouts and grows stronger. Roots entrench themselves and branches grow. The task of breaking a bad habit is like uprooting a powerful oak within us. And the task of building a good habit is like cultivating a delicate flower one day at a time.

It’s also important to remember that it’s not just about “goals.” You have to develop new “systems” or “ways of being” that are best for making changes. A system of continuous small improvements to achieve a different outcome is key. When we begin to change from within, the output changes itself.

Some final thoughts to leave you with:

“You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your systems.” How can this relate to our mental health journey? Being aware of your anxiety and depression, or unhealthy relationship patterns and wanting something more or different is not enough. You have to be willing to make small changes. Start therapy, go for a walk, decide to quit drinking for awhile and see how things go. You are not a failure who will never be good enough. You are a human, a human who may have been dealt some difficult cards in this life. But that doesn’t have to be the end of the story.

Just as atoms are the building blocks of molecules, atomic (habits) changes are the building blocks of transformation and healing.

And you don’t have to do it alone!