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Beyond Hacking Your Habits: Moving from Awareness to Action

The essence of mindfulness is training the mind to recognize unconscious reactions, so that we may move out of autopilot and into more adaptive responding. Once you start Hacking Your Habits, there are three simple processes to practice undermining autopilot.

Mindful-Mastery Mantra
Mindful-Mastery Mantra

Moving from Awareness to Effectiveness

Just as each component on the dashboard of your car indicates a particular need for care, each component of your internal experience does too. You wouldn’t want to put gas in the oil tank, or window washing fluid in your gas tank. In your mind-body vehicle, the practices of mindful responding always include three types skills, which should not be mixed up!

3 Steps to Practice: Validate – Check – Change

Step I: Validate Emotions

The Skill.

To validate is not to approve, condone or cheer lead. Validating our emotions simply means to acknowledge them as present, without any judgment of good or bad.

The Mix Up:

Humans naturally want to feel more good feelings, and get rid of the difficult feelings.  But direct efforts to change our emotions short-term often makes them worse long-term!

Barriers to Practice.

But, as we have learned, our emotion regulation system is a Paradox. (read more) The more you try not to feel something, the more you will feel it! Skillfulness is attending to your emotions with Willingness and non-judgment (read more here)

The Practices.

  • PAUSE: Notice that you are feeling triggered.
  • Find the verbal label for the emotion. This is not always as simple as it sounds. Try it right now. Actively move in to find a single word to describe your internal experience.
  • Practice gently allowing this emotion to be present. Let go of fighting against it by attending to the physical sensations of the emotion with gentle acceptance.
  • Develop you own Validation Statement. Identify why it makes sense that you are having the emotion based on your biology (e.g. fatigue, PMS, recent alcohol consumption, physical illness), history (prior associations with similar experiences), or anyone would feel this way!

Step II: Check Thoughts

The Skill.

There are two ways to effectively check thoughts; 1. Keep them in check by anchoring attention in the present moment. 2. Check them for accuracy of interpretation.

The Mix Up.

Our thoughts and beliefs often feel like facts. Our natural tendency is to seek evidence to support our beliefs rather than the contrary. Our thinking content becomes like a virtual reality in which we live, demanding that we attend to it. Often times to the exclusion of our direct experience of the present moment!

Barriers to Practice.

Because our thoughts feel so true, they become sticky, biased, and habitual (more here). The difficulty here is seeing thoughts as just thoughts, rather than facts.  So, our natural tendency is to either over indulge or attempt to suppress our thoughts. Being skillful is recognizing the biases of the mind.

The Practices.

  • Shift your attention into the physical sensations in your body. Each time your mind pulls you to engage in your mind habit, actively move your focus to the sensations of breathing, other physical sensations, and the sounds around you. Each time your mind tries to wander back to the thought, practice redirecting to breath- body- sound.
  • Test the thought for accuracy.  Ask yourself, “Are the thoughts going through my mind 100% true?” This is a classic CBT skill. Being skillful is to actively seek examples of how your thought is not true, even if just a little bit.
  • Find the balanced thought. Use AND rather than ‘but’ to find a balanced interpretation of the situation causing you distress. For example, “It is true that _________, AND _______ is true also.”

Step III: Change Actions

The Skill.

The only thing in your direct control is your behavior. We all want to feel more in control of the things we want to change in our lives. Your most powerful ally in regulating your trigger reactions is your behavior (more here).

Being skillful is intentionally choosing the action, which will be most effective in a. promoting your physiological resilience (more here), and b. managing the problem in the moment.

The Mix Up.

We frequently mix up our actions with the internal experience of the emotion itself. This is because our action tendencies are evolutionarily so tightly coupled with our emotions.

Barriers to Practice.

While the action impulses related to each emotion do make us feel compelled to certain actions, the action is a separate thing from the emotion itself. The barrier here is usually our willingness to do the opposite of what our emotion is compelling us to do!

The Practices.

  • Opposite Action: Because emotions and the related action tendencies are so tightly coupled, engaging the action opposite to the emotion can help down regulate the emotion.
    • For Anxiety: Slow down.
      • Open your body posture so that you lower your shoulders, breath into your belly.
      • Pace your breathing so that you inhale a count of 3, and exhale a count of 5, for several breaths.
    • For Anger: Gently move away from the situation causing the emotion. Practice compassion for the subject of your anger.
    • For Sadness: Speed up. As best you can take one small action to get active. Stand up, stretch your body, take a shower, or even better, exercise!

Mindful-Mastery begins with self awareness and understanding of the basic mechanisms of our mind-body vehicles. But awareness, or ‘insight’ is not enough to break the habitual patterns of thinking and behaving we develop over time.

Our habits are our ways of being we have practiced repeatedly over time. So making the shift out of autopilot requires a steady practice of listening to, and validating our experience, before mindfully choosing to do something different.

The simple rule of Validate – Check – Change will help you to regain control of your trigger reactions, and slowly rewire your autopilot into more adaptive responding.


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Beyond Hacking Your Habits: Moving from Awareness to Action

Dr. Fielding

Lara Fielding is a licensed Clinical Psychologist, who teaches, supervises, and specializes in the Mindfulness-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapies (CBT). Her private practice is in Los Angeles, where she is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University, Graduate School of Education and Psychology, and a Supervisor Psychologist at the UCLA Department of Psychology Clinic. Dr. Fielding teaches clients how to master the auto-pilot tendencies of the mind-body emotional system with mindfulness and self-care skills. As a behavioral psychologist, she works with clients to empower their skillfulness in managing stress and regulating difficult emotions. The skills she teaches are based on her research at UCLA, Harvard, and Peperdine, to incorporate the psycho-physiology of stress, emotion and cognition. Dr. Fielding has exhaustively studied the Mindfulness-Based CBT treatments (DBT, ACT, MBSR, MBCT) and their application for problems with Emotion Dysregulation. From this study, she derived a set of therapist guidelines for evidence-based practice. Dr. Fielding’s work is further informed by her research experience at UCLA and Harvard. Her research there explored the relationship between health behavior and the psycho-physiological effects of stress on cognition and emotion. Dr. Fielding is trained and experienced working with groups and individuals suffering from the effects of traumatic experiences, anxiety, and mood disorders. She has taught hundreds of clients concrete skills to better manage difficult emotions in the face of stressful life situations. With these cognitive and emotional skills in place, clients are guided towards personal values consistent behavioral change, in order to achieve their life goals.

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APA Reference
Fielding, L. (2015). Beyond Hacking Your Habits: Moving from Awareness to Action. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 13, 2019, from


Last updated: 6 Dec 2015
Statement of review: Psych Central does not review the content that appears in our blog network ( prior to publication. All opinions expressed herein are exclusively those of the author alone, and do not reflect the views of the editorial staff or management of Psych Central. Published on All rights reserved.