The Power of Habits Part 2: Leaving Habits Behind

by GoodTherapy
Most of us have experience with trying to quit bad habits. We want to grow, and bad certain habits can stand in our way. We know the struggle of quitting bad habits – it is not always easy to choose to engage in that struggle. Sometimes we feel a sense of dependence on these habits. There are so many examples of this kind of thing, and it often involves something that could be good for us, but we’re using it in a way that’s unhelpful to us. We’re convinced that we need to drink that glass of wine, overexercise, or bite our nails to deal with our stress. Wine is lovely, moving your body is great, but humans have a knack for making good things problematic. [Not much good to say about biting your nails.] What do you need right now? When your habits aren’t your allies, it’s time to move past them. If you’re finding that you’d like to leave some of your habits behind, even habits that aren’t “bad” so much as just not serving you well, welcome to the club. We’re glad you’re here.

Habits can be hard to break because doing so requires changing our brains. Once we have done something enough times, our brains create strong neural pathways for that action, making it normative for us. Sometimes there are reasons for this. For example, someone who bites their nails might only do so when they’re anxious about something. Their brain defaults to do this as an anxiety response. It has become a habit associated with that feeling. Once our brain is wired to depend on something, it can be challenging to retrain it. But it can be done. 


#1 Identify the Habit
The first step to quitting a bad habit is to identify it. First, determine what default patterns are not helpful to you, and decide to stop. (Some people have habits they do not even recognize – feedback from those close to you can help with this first step.) While you might not be able to stop this pattern of behavior cold-turkey, this will start the process of retraining your brain to recognize this action is undesirable.

#2 Explore Its Origins
When and why did this habit begin? Exploring a habit’s origins is key to retraining your brain. Sometimes we engage in bad habits as a stress response. Think back to the time in your life when the habit started. Identifying where it came from can provide clarity and help you recognize the behavior’s triggers. 

#3 Replace It with Something Else
Replacing one habit with a better habit is a powerful way to retrain your brain. The triggers that used to lead to the habit you’re trying to quit will probably still come up – creating a healthier habit in response to them will help you bypass the old habit’s neural pathways by creating new ones. For example, if you’re trying to quit smoking, drink a glass of water or a cup of tea every time you want to smoke a cigarette. If you’re trying to stop looking to alcohol to help you unwind at the end of the day, start setting aside 15 or 30 minutes for a new yoga practice or a fun-book reading habit after dinner. 

#4 Change Your Routine
Your routine plays a significant role in quitting bad habits. If your routine caters to habits you want to leave behind, it will be difficult to make changes. Try changing your routine and schedule to accommodate new, good habits. Be mindful of settings that might be more tempting and develop a plan for handling those situations.

#5 Connect with Others
Quitting bad habits is easier when you have others in your corner cheering you on. Your friends, family, and therapist want good things for you. Harness the power of positive peer pressure and ask them for support. Telling people about what you are trying to do can help hold you accountable and motivate you on your journey to quitting bad habits. 

#6 Give Yourself Grace
Ridding yourself of a habit you don’t want is hard work, and only rarely does it happen overnight. You will need to extend the same kind of kindness and forgiveness toward yourself that you would to a friend. Contrary to popular opinion, shaming yourself doesn’t make you more successful or motivated to change. 

#7 Work with a Counselor or Therapist
No matter what kind of habit you’re trying to quit, there are behavioral health therapists who can help you on your journey. A therapist can help you identify the root of your habit and establish new ways of thinking. They can help you learn strategies to start quitting bad habits.

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