The Hardening Exercise

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice; in practice, there is.

- Jan van de Snepscheut

Behavior follows the “use it or lose it” rule: Each repetition of a response strengthens it. Hardening refers to practicing or rehearsing the intended response in order to enhance its strength.

At the critical moment of crisis you will have to execute your coping response competently, which may be asking too much if this is the first time you ever try it. The purpose of Hardening is to enhance the habit strength of your coping response. Ideally, effective coping responses will get enough practice to become autonomous.

Do one high-risk situation at a time, and take it as far as you can through the three phases below:

  1. Predict Your High-Risk Situations: The very intention to change your course foreshadows the relapse crises that lie ahead. To the extent you can predict which situations will be high risk, you can prepare for them. Use the History Review to identify warning signs. You make the call about which high-risk situations are the most dangerous and hence the one you should start with.
  2. Thought Experiment: High-risk fantasy.
    Use your imagination to sample how you will experience situations that are high-risk for you. Give yourself and your challenge some respect, and create realistic stressors and/or temptations. Explore different kinds of coping tactics in your imagination. You may find it helpful to use the History Review Form to examine how relapses have unfolded in the past.

  3. Covert Rehearsal: Experimenting with tactics that must work the first time you encounter a crisis is best done in imagination. The objective world is unforgiving. Errors can be unbearably costly. Imagination is cheap! Covert rehearsal involves using your imagination, memory, and rational processing to visualize possible high risk situations and how you might cope with them. Once you have conceptualized the challenge the goal is to strengthen the coping response through covert rehearsal so that you can do it right the first to you try it in a high-risk situation. 
  4. Thought Experiment: Using dissociative imagery.
    Dissociative imagery refers to the detached perspective—viewing your experience from an external, objective perspective—such as, watching a movie in which you are on screen and, like anyone in the audience, would be able to see your face. For this exercise, you are the director of a movie of yourself in a high-risk situation. Create a vivid representation of the physical and social environment. Consider what makes the situation high risk. Observe your execution of your intended coping tactics. Note how effective or ineffective your plan and performance seems, and how the situation plays out. Some people find it helpful to make written notes after each scenario.

    Thought Experiment: Using associative imagery .
    Associative imagery refers to the experiential perspective—that is, seeing the world through the actor’s eyes, so you would only be able to see your face if you were looking into a mirror. For this exercise, repeat the same scenarios as above but this time step into the image instead of observing the action as a spectator. Experience the actor’s subjective reality. How it feels to be in the high-risk situation—the craving, internal dialogue, etc—and how it feels to execute the intended reaction. You may also note how the situation resolves and how that is experienced by the actor.

    Covert rehearsal is safer and less taxing than exposing yourself to a genuine high-risk situation. By taking advantage of your imaginative skills you can evoke high risk state-dependent phenomena (including craving, excuses that would permit a lapse, etc.) in a safe practice environment. Rehearse each scenario until you feel confident that you would be able to initiate the coping response in a high-risk situation and that you would be able to successfully cope with the situation.

  5. Practice coping with high-risk situations in vivo: Do not underestimate the PIG! Direct exposure to stimuli associated with the incentive is dangerous and should only be attempted if you believe the benefits of the added protection more than offset the dangers of the exposure. If this is true for you, judiciously expose yourself to progressively more difficult high-risk situations with the purpose of developing your coping skills. Needless to say, do not proceed faster than you can handle and back off at the first sign of danger.
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