Scattergood Foundation

Advancing Innovative Strategies for Change in Behavioral Health

Grant Activity: Current Activity Impacting Communities

Can A Trauma-Informed Approach Help People Stick to New Year's Resolutions?

As the calendar turns to February, over one third of people will have given up on their New Year’s resolution. In fact, the official “Ditch Your New Year's Resolutions Day” was over two weeks ago, a sign that abandoning resolutions has become every bit as culturally embedded as making them. There is no shortage of reasons why people do not carry out their resolutions—not making time in their schedules, being unsure of where to start, inertia. One reason I would like to see become a larger part of this discussion is the impact of past experiences.

At first glance, it may not seem clear how something that happened years or decades ago can affect a person’s attempt to declutter their e-mail inbox or not eat as many sweets. However, the theory that past experiences may shape current behaviors was what led to the seminal Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) Study, which established the connection between traumatic events in childhood and negative health outcomes later in life. In 1985, Dr. Vincent Felitti, then chair of Kaiser Permanente’s Department of Preventative Medicine wanted to investigate why 50 percent of people were consistently dropping out of his obesity clinic. He interviewed close to 300 people who had left the weight loss program and found that a large majority had been sexually abused as children. Many reported that gaining weight was a protective mechanism as they believed that it would cause past or potential aggressors to overlook them. Since then, subsequent research has linked ACEs to a plethora of health and social problems, all the while strengthening the perceived role that coping mechanisms can play in habit formation.

Though clearly not every person who does not stick to their New Year’s resolution does so because of past trauma (not to mention the countless people who have experienced trauma and successfully achieve theirs), the core practices of the trauma-informed approach can be helpful to anyone attempting to keep a New Year’s resolution. Making a resolution can be an intrinsically uncomfortable proposition, as it requires one to grapple with the question ‘what about my current self do I want to change?’—a question that can easily be followed-up by ‘what don’t I like about myself?’. However, when considering New Year’s resolutions from a trauma-informed point of view, the follow-up question instead becomes ‘what happened in the past that led me to develop my present behaviors?’ Acknowledging that habits do not appear instantaneously and, therefore, will not go away with the flip of a switch (or turn of a calendar), may help to frame resolutions as a first step on a journey towards achieving more comprehensive change.

The beautiful thing about New Year’s resolutions is that they can be a molting of sorts, moving a little bit further along in the transition from the ugly duckling to beautiful swan. However, despite multiple outlets trying to convince people otherwise, no one changes from December 31st to January 1st any more than from any other day to the next. While the new year can help people feel distant from their past selves and may motivate change, the same roadblocks that have prevented past progress will still be in place. Using trauma-informed principles to reflect on and embrace one’s own past can enable people to better understand their personal obstacles, and develop simple, measurable, and achievable resolutions that begin to chip away at these barriers, rather than trying to remove them in one go. Once these initial resolutions are completed, new, slightly grander ones can be set. Of course there will be good days and bad days, but utilizing a trauma-informed approach to self-betterment may be the answer to finally sticking to your New Year’s resolution. 

Luke Butler is one of the Scattergood ParityTrack fellows. He has an MPH from the University of Pennsylvania, and a BA in Psychology from Temple University. In addition to behavioral health parity, he is interested in exploring the various ways trauma impacts people's lives, and creative solutions for how these impacts can be overcome.