How to break a bad habit

January 10, 2018 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Minds

We all have some not-so-good habits. What’s yours? Are you a junk food fanatic? Do you often skimp on sleep? Are you a couch potato? A smoker?

Habits are a normal part of life. Some are more serious or harder to break than others. About 70 percent of smokers say they would like to quit. Why is it so hard to break a habit, especially if you know it’s not good for you?

Habits are patterns of behavior that arise through repetition. Scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) have studied what happens in our brains as habits form.

Habits are deeply wired into our brains by constant repetition. Some habits are helpful. When behaviors become automatic, it frees up our brains to focus on different things. We wake up, brush our teeth, shower and get dressed without having to think much about it. We can drive to a familiar destination without even realizing how we got there.

Habits can also develop when enjoyable events trigger the brain’s “reward” centers. The pleasure-based habits are much harder to break. When you enjoy doing something, it prompts your brain to release a chemical called dopamine, which strengthens the habit even more and creates the craving to do it again.

According to the NIH, “This can set up potentially harmful routines, such as overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling and even compulsive use of computers and social media.”

The good news is, we as humans can change our behavior. “Maintaining a change requires continued commitment until the change becomes a part of your life,” says Dr. Linda Nebeling, an expert at NIH. “People who can maintain or engage in efforts to change their behavior, and do it for 6 to 8 weeks, are more likely to be able to support that effort longer term.”

If you’re looking to make a healthy change in the new year, challenge yourself to break a bad habit. It’s not easy, but it can be done. Try these 8 tips to help make the break:

  1. Identify your triggers. Clearly define what bad habit you want to break, and what triggers you to engage in the habit. What is going on emotionally when you are biting your nails? When you know what’s behind it, such as underlying anxiety, you can work to address it.
  2. Replace unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. Establish a new routine to counteract the bad habit. Replace smoking or overeating with exercising or a new hobby. Use reminders to break bad patterns, like putting your gym clothes out the night before.
  3. Avoid temptations. Habits can be linked to certain people, places and activities. Change up your routine. Avoid going to places or doing things where you used to engage in the bad habit. Keep unhealthy foods out of your house. Stay away from friends linked to drinking or drug use.
  4. Keep your focus. When you start to slip, remind yourself why you committed to this. If you quit smoking, your risk for serious illnesses immediately decreases. Lose extra weight and cut your risk for diabetes. Reduce stress and lower your risk for heart disease.
  5. Don’t give up. Take it one day at a time, and know in advance how you will handle obstacles along the way. If you slip up, don’t give up. Just have a plan to get back on track.
  6. Track your progress. It can help you to stay focused if you keep a journal or diary. Include in it mantras to stay motivated in choosing good behaviors over bad ones.
  7. Enlist cheerleaders. Ask friends and family to help you stick with your goal (they can also hold you accountable!). Find a running buddy, or someone you can call when you’re struggling. Join a support group.
  8. Reward yourself. Each day/week/month you stay away from your bad habit, give yourself a treat, such as a new outfit, massage or mini vacation.

It may not be easy to break a bad habit, but with enough determination, you can take charge of your life and form healthy habits instead. Good luck!

If you’ve tried all you can and still can’t seem to break a bad or unhealthy habit, consider seeing a professional therapist. Get support from Linden Oaks Behavioral Health.

Were you able to break a bad habit? How did you do it? Share with us in the comments!

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