Bad Habits....and how to break them.
Breaking Bad Habits
If you know something’s bad for you, why can’t you just stop?
Once physical dependence is gone, people in recovery struggle to give up their addictions even though it causes damage to their bodies and negatively impacts families and friendships. So why is so hard?
Scientists have been searching for answers studying what happens in our brains as habits form. They’ve found clues to why bad habits, once established, are so difficult to kick and they’re developing strategies to help us make the changes we’d like to make.
It's easy to think of habits falling into black and white categories; exercising - good, drug abuse - bad. But habits also sit on a continuum in our ability to exercise control over them.
Another thing that makes habits especially hard to break is that replacing a first-learned habit with a new one doesn’t erase the original behavior. Rather, both remain in your brain. But you can take steps to strengthen the new one and suppress the original one.
Bad habits, addiction and behaviors may be hard to change, but it can be done. Enlist the help of friends, co-workers and family for some extra support.
#001: Forming habits
“Habits play an important role in our health, Understanding the biology of how we develop routines that may be harmful to us, and how to break those routines and embrace new ones, could help us change our lifestyles and adopt healthier behaviors.” Dr. N Volkow.
Habits can arise through repetition. They are a normal part of life, and are often helpful. When behaviors become automatic, it gives us an advantage, because the brain does not have to use conscious thought to perform the activity.
Habits can also develop when good or enjoyable events trigger the brain’s “reward” centers. This can set up potentially harmful routines, such as overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse or gambling.
Enjoyable behaviors can prompt your brain to release a chemical called dopamine. “If you do something over and over, and dopamine is there when you’re doing it, strengthening the habit. This explains why some people crave drugs, even if the drug no longer makes them feel particularly good once they take it.
The reward centers keep us craving the things we’re trying so hard to resist. The good news is we are not simply creatures of habit.
We have many more brain regions to help us do what’s best for our health.
Breaking bad habits isn't about stopping, but substituting.
#002: Goal setting
We are much better at changing our behavior toward long-term goals, or long-term benefits than we think.
Self-control is like a muscle. Once you’ve exerted some self-control, like a muscle it gets tired and your willpower can be temporarily drained, which can make it harder to avoid using drugs or alcohol.
However, regularly practicing different types of self-control can strengthen your resolve.
When you are struggling with the thoughts to use, try:
Going for a walk
Talking to someone
You can improve your self-control by doing exercises over time and this will gradually exercise your ‘muscle’ and make you stronger.”
Get to work
#003: Not one size fits all
There is no single effective way to break bad habits. “It’s not one size fits all.
One approach is to focus on becoming more aware of your unhealthy habits. Then develop strategies to counteract them.
You could develop a plan, say, to avoid walking past a bar or off license. Resolve to avoid going places where you’ve usually drunk or used drugs. Stay away from friends and situations linked to problem drinking or drug use.
Another helpful technique is to visualize yourself in a tempting situation. Mentally practice the good behavior over the bad.
Replace unhealthy routines with new, healthy ones. Some people find they can replace a bad habit, even drug addiction, with another behavior, like exercising. These alternative behaviors can counteract the urges to repeat a behavior to take a drug.
#004: Be kind to yourself
When you set out to break a bad habit, chances are your efforts aren’t going to be perfect. Recovery is tough.
When this happens, the best thing you can do is be kind to yourself. If you beat yourself up, you may begin to associate your goal with negative emotions, which may interfere with your progress and motivation.
The good news is that if you relapse, it won’t materially affect the habit formation process in your brain. Simply jump back on the wagon and the habit-forming will continue as if it was never interrupted.
Relapse can be viewed as a productive step in your quest to breaking your addiction – it’ll teach you a new lesson about your habit that can inform your strategy.
Chances are this experience will lead to greater success in beating your addiction once and for all.
Learn from it.