We all have the tendency at times to do or think in a certain way that holds us back from the life we want. As we repeat them over time, they become automatic and form unconscious routines that short of benefiting us, make our life issues look manageable.
These unhelpful habits can be physical, mental, or emotional. For instance spending most of the time distracted by technology instead of being productive, shopping online, biting nails, and checking emails in the middle of the night.
If these habits do not benefit us, why are we still repeating them?
When we face life challenges, we tend to seek temporary comfort or satisfaction from these habits. Over time, we resist changing them even when we know that they are not doing us any good.
Dr. Stephanie Collier* explained that when the brain seeks satisfaction or does anything that helps us to survive as species like eating or having sex, it releases dopamine.
Dr. Luana Marques** added that when we try to break a bad habit, we create dissonance at the brain level. The limbic system in the brain feels “threatened” and activates the fight-flight-or-freeze responses, resulting in our sticking with the bad habits as a way to avoid the “threat”.
Changing a bad habit is difficult but absolutely achievable.
In his book “ The Power of Habits”, Charles Duhigg explained that breaking a (bad) habit starts by breaking up the three components of the Habit Loop.
- The Cue: it is the trigger that activates the habit or the routine behaviour. It usually falls into one of the following categories: location, time, current emotional state, people around you, and your last action. For instance, walking by a coffee shop or a dessert shop prompts you to get a cup of coffee or a sweet dessert. In this case, it is the location. When it is mid-morning in the office, you think of having a break, it is the time. When you are bored, you think of surfing the net or watching your social media, it is the state of mind. The action of leaving home cues you to check if you have your wallet in your purse/ pocket.
- The Habit: refers to repeated behaviour or routine. For instance, jiggling your leg every time you are nervous creates the habit.
- The Reward: it is the temporary relief you get out of the habit. Drinking alcohol or eating chocolate when feeling sad brings a state of relaxation and feeling better. Shopping online brings the feeling of being important/attractive when you purchase items/services you want but don’t need. The reward reinforces the routine and keeps the (bad) habit firmly rooted.
When the bad-habit urge hits, identify your cue. Are you alone, feeling stuck, sad, or not good enough? Also ask yourself when, where, and with whom it happens.
Collier explained that urges follow a cycle of about 20 minutes. They start being intense then wane. What can you do to get through the cycle? The best way is to distract yourself. Eat healthy snacks instead of junk food, and go for a short walk instead of online shopping or scrolling through your social media. Find ways to reduce your stress instead of smoking. Tell yourself that you are much stronger than succumbing to the temptation of a bad habit. Listen to positive affirmations to boost your self-esteem and feel “good enough” about yourself. Change your environment and avoid places where you most likely are tempted to do retail therapy or have that drink before going home.
Also, keep in mind that change does not happen in an all-or-nothing mindset, instead, tackle the change in baby steps. If you tend to eat unhealthy snacks, start by mixing unhealthy with healthy food, then gradually reduce and replace the unhealthy food.
If you feel resistant to distracting yourself, practice the “5 Second Rule” technique initiated by Mel Robbins where you count down “5-4-3-2-1-GO” and then do a task right away. This way, your brain will not have time to feel “threatened” and slam on the emergency brake by sticking with the old habit.
*Dr. Stephanie Collier is the director of education in the division of geriatric psychology at McLean Hospital, and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
**Dr. Luana Marques is the associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School
Mel Robbins, “The 5 Second Rule: Transform your Life, Work, and Confidence with Everyday Courage“, Savio Republic, Feb 17th, 2019
Duhigg, Charles, “The Power of Habit: “Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business”, Random House, Feb 28th, 2012
Counsellor & Collaborative Family Practitioner