Breaking the Cycle of Bad Habits
Over the past year and a half, many of us developed a bad habit or two...or three. Maybe it’s late-night snacking on junk food, or skipping exercise to the point of becoming a couch potato. Or perhaps it's something more serious like excessive drinking, or dwelling on troubling news and social media.
Whatever the bad habit may be, this time of complacent social distancing hasn’t been too good for our 2021 New Year’s resolutions.
Where do habits come from?
Habits are essentially borne from a reward system. Behavior is triggered, for instance, late-night snack-eating. It’s midnight and your favorite show just ended on a food scene, making you salivate for that pack of chips in the pantry (the trigger.) The next few times you watch the show, you get the same yearning for food. This ritualization is the start of habit-making.
The reward, of course, is the taste and satisfaction of enjoying a crispy, salty, yet obviously unhealthy bag of chips. Substitute this example for any number of bad habits: cigarettes, alcohol, gossip, etc. and the analogy stays the same.
So we know where it came from, now what?
Simply telling someone to stop a bad habit doesn’t work. It may shame the person in question, and they may even understand that it’s bad for them. But if bad habits were that easy to break, people wouldn’t need so much help breaking them. But they do.
The solution is not simple. In fact, it’s slightly different for every individual, as each individual’s circumstances are unique. But there are two mainstays.
First, be mindful. This means being simply aware of the things happening in your experience. This way you can more easily observe triggers as they arise, and pay attention to the intensity with which it steers you towards your troubling habit.
This mindfulness is all well and good, but it won’t do much without an intention to actually quit the habit. This brings us to the next step: take action.
There are various ways to act on squashing a bad habit. One example is cigarettes. A patient at my psychiatry practice may be asked to keep their cigarettes in a different room, in a lock box, with the actual box of cigarettes bound by rubber bands. This forces mindfulness: in order to access the cigarettes, the person is forced to overcome the hardship of accessing them. How strong is the urge?
They will be asked to keep a record. Cigarettes with a low urge level will be the first to go. With the help of mindfulness and a strategy to take charge of our behaviors, eventually, even the most coveted cigarette at the end of a long day will become undesirable. As the transient reward of a nicotine buzz is recognized for the hollow sensation that it is, the urges pass.
It may also be useful to replace a bad habit with a healthy one. Maybe replace the cigarette with a pleasant breathing exercise, or switch out the cookies for carrots.
For some, breaking bad habits is not so easy as a bit of self-help. In these cases, it is best to reach out to a mental health professional. Bregman Medical Group has decades of experience treating various disorders and helping people through difficult times. We offer online psychiatry and therapy. Simply schedule online at www.bregmanmd.com or call 305-740-3340.