Breaking Bad Habits

A habit is any action that is performed so often that it becomes almost an involuntary or automatic response. Some people use the words “habit” and “addiction” interchangeably; however, there are important differences between them.

A habit is something a person is inclined or accustomed to doing routinely, almost without thinking, There is often no forethought or planning in it and they may even be unaware they are doing it. There are “bad” habits like snacking on fatty foods while watching TV, biting ones nails when nervous, or twirling ones hair when tired. A habit can also be something helpful like going to the gym after work, flossing after meals, or eating a nutritious breakfast in the morning.

An addiction is something you are dependent upon or that you need more and more of to satisfy you. Someone who is addicted spends time deliberately thinking about and planning for the activity – like going to the liquor store to stock up on alcohol or going to the casino over a long lunch for some clandestine gambling. People who are addicted make a conscious effort to obtain the things they need to satisfy their addiction and they deliberately arrange time for it in their day, sometimes even putting off other important things to do it. Addiction is never helpful in that the behavior is engaged in too frequently or intensely such that it causes problems.

Some behaviors, like smoking, are part habit and part addiction. Lighting up after dinner may be a habit in that it is automatic and done without much thought, but the smoker is addicted to the nicotine and might even pass on lunch to spend his or her last dollar to obtain a fix. In addition, quitting the smoking will result in physiological symptoms that do not occur when stopping a pure habit.

A habit is learned in that over time the behavior is rewarded and becomes consistent. For instance, biting your nails might provide you a little relief when you are feeling stressed. After several repetitions, your brain learns to associate the nail biting with stress relief and a habit is formed. The common lore is that learning a habit takes about three weeks of frequent repetition with reinforcement.

Overcoming an addiction can be a very difficult and complicated process, but changing a habit is something that can often be done on one’s own with a little focus and persistence. The trick is to make the involuntary voluntary and the unconscious conscious so that good choices can be made about behavior instead of letting things just happen.

How to Break a Bad Habit

First it is important to determine your level of motivation. Ask yourself if you really want to make a change and why. Identify the pros and cons of the habit (its payoffs and tradeoffs) and this will help you understand the function your habit serves. Write down what you want to change and why – there is some evidence that writing down your goals contributes to success in achieving them.

Work on one habit at a time. Start small and go slow. Well planned, measured, reasonable changes are the most lasting changes. Impulsive, dramatic changes such as rapid weight loss or spontaneous New Year’s resolutions are often short-lived.

Identify your triggers and plan for them. Keep a diary logging the situations, thoughts, feelings, and actions surrounding your habit. With whom do you perform your habit? Where? When? This way you will have a better understanding of your patterns.

In the early stages of change, you will want to avoid your triggers or replace your habit with another more productive behavior when your triggers are unavoidable. Substitute a helpful habit for the problematic one – preferably one that satisfies that same underlying need you discovered when examining your motivation for change. For example, if you twirl your hair when you are sleepy, you can replace it with better sleeping habits. Once you are secure in your habit change, you can begin to safely expose yourself more and more to your old triggers without risking a slip.

Self-control and will power are learned skills that can be developed with practice. Each time you restrain yourself from performing your habit, your will power and self-control become stronger.

Since habits are learned through reinforcement, remember to reward your successes. When you slip, don’t become discouraged and “throw out the baby with the bathwater”. Just as it takes time to develop a bad habit, it also takes time to break one.

If you suspect you are struggling with addiction and want to make a change, it is important to consult with an addictions specialist to assist you in your recovery. If you have tried unsuccessfully to change a bad habit despite your strong desire to do so, it also may be time to talk to a mental health professional. A good therapist can help you understand the function of your habit, identify triggers, and maintain your changes. You can find mental health professionals in your area through online therapist locators such as those hosted by the American Psychological Association, Psychology Today, Network Therapy and GoodTherapy.

Please also visit my website for more information and resources regarding a variety of mental health concerns.

1 thought on “Breaking Bad Habits

  1. I so badly wish to stop smoking and i am really hoping that this is my year to make the change. The problem is that although I am ready to do that my husband and my son neither one are and so that makes it very difficult for me to be around them. I always cave in despite my best intentions. What can I do to stop that? I mean I live with these people and yet I am not getting all of the support that I need to make stopping a lasting habit for me. I am so frustrated with myslef and with them as well.


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