There is an overwhelming amount of self help books and experts who share their perspective on how to break bad habits. Whether it be smoking, nail-biting, checking social media too much or overindulging, there's a chance we all have at least one bad habit that we want to break.
In order to figure out how to break a bad habit, I wanted to understand how a bad habit forms. According to many psychologist and researchers, bad habits are a result of positive reinforcement; the mental process of trigger, behaviour, and reward. For example, most of us, even me, have the process in our brain that says "hey, let’s eat something good when we feel bad to make us feel better." Or we see the smoking ads and we subconsciously think, "wow that's a cool dude, I want to be a cool dude." We see cool, smoke to be cool, feel good, and repeat. Each time we do this, it becomes a learned process and eventually a habit. As a result, these habits are linked to emotional responses. Like when we feel stressed out, we go to smoking or eating something sweet. Most habits are linked to an emotional trigger and response; some good and some bad. However, how do we stop bad habits and create new healthy habits?
It's difficult to reverse a bad habit, especially if it’s been practiced over many years. BUT it is possible. Not to be the cliché, "anything is possible if you just believe." However, there are ways to break a bad habit, step by step. After listening to countless motivational speakers, doctors, and people's experience; I came to the conclusion that breaking bad habits has one common denominator, mindfulness.
The root of mindfulness is understanding your brain's natural learning process. One major aspect is your brain can’t process negative thoughts. If I tell you not to think about a purple monkey, whatever you do DON'T think about a purple monkey. You’re going to think about a purple monkey. This is the same concept for any unwanted habit. If you tell yourself not to think about it, you're going to think about it and the desire for the habit becomes worse.
In order to overcome the craving or desire to do the habit you're trying to break, try to replace the thought of the habit with something else. For example smoking. You're not doing it, but the thought of the sensation makes the urge stronger and harder to quit. So when someone thinks about having a cigarette, replace the action with something else that reignites with you. Replace "I need a cigarette" with "I need air" or your children's names, something that has to do with the reason for quitting a bad habit.
The second component of mindfulness is being curiously aware. When the thought of doing the habit comes to mind, think of the consequence or the feeling you get after doing it. A study uses this technique to help people quit smoking. In fact, the researchers told the participants they could smoke, however, they were told to be curious about the sensation when smoking. One participant stated, "mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese, and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!". This participant knew cognitively that smoking was bad for her, however she discovered that smoking tasted bad from being curiously aware. As the researcher describes this sensation, "she moved from knowledge to wisdom. She moved from knowing in her head that smoking was bad for her to knowing it into her bones. And the spell of smoking was broken, she became disenchanted in the behavior." This technique is not only effective for quitting smoking, but can help you conquer any bad habit.
Knowing the positive result from research, I decided to test it out for myself. In fact, these methods actually helped me break some of my own bad habits. For the past couple of months, my healthy routine has been put off. I was in the process of moving to a new home and a lot of changes in life, so I put less thought into what I was eating. I would always go for the "easy" and usually unhealthy choices for food. As well as replacing my normal water intake with coffee. After a month of unhealthy eating, I noticed my energy levels were low and I wasn't feeling my greatest. I knew I needed to switch back to my original healthy eating patterns. However, after eating processed food over a certain period of time, your body starts to get addicted to the added sugar and chemicals, which causes cravings that make it more difficult to resist. So I made the decision to stop eating processed and unhealthy foods by being mindful of the cravings and what the results would be if I gave into them. When my mind said "hey go get more coffee," I thought to myself, what if I drank a glass of water instead? Because I knew, when I drank too much coffee in a day, I would feel sick and dizzy, so I chose not to. In doing so, my mind and my body learned that I am not dependent on caffeine in order to do well at work and I felt better drinking water instead of coffee. FÜM also helped me with the small momentary cravings. Inhaling peppermint helps give my mind the boost of energy, while the sensation distracted my mind from what it originally was craving like coffee or junk food. From this experience, I learned that taking the time to think through these small moments, can progress into big changes over time. It’s a process, I'm working on getting rid of my bad habits and forming new ones, but it gets easier step by step.
It’s not to say that this method is a magic wand that you wave and over night the habit is gone. But being aware of the behavior allows you to overcome the bite sized moments of wanting to give into the bad habit, until eventually your mind and body stops craving the bad habit. Through replacing the word of the habit with a word of reason, along with being curiously aware, helps our brain clearly see what we get out of a habitual behavior. This process helps our brain make new connections and eventually, naturally let go of the bad habit. So the next time you have a craving or desire for something that you know isn't the best for you, ask yourself: how would I feel after giving into the craving? What do I get out of it, if I gave into it?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jocelyn's passion to help others drives her work here at FUM. Jocelyn uses her research knowledge to bring information to the FUM Family on how to improve health. She graduated with a degree in Business Management and Organizational Communication from the University of Ottawa and currently lives in Calgary, Canada.