How to break a bad habit

We all have habits we’d like to get rid of, and every night we give each other the same pep talk: I go to bed earlier. I will resist this cookie. I will stop biting my nails. And then tomorrow comes, we give in and we feel worse than bad. We feel defeated and guilty because we know better and still can’t resist.

The cycle is understandable because the brain does not make changes easily. But breaking an unhealthy habit can be done. It takes intention, a little skill and some effective behavior modification techniques. But even before that, it helps to understand what is going on in our brain, with our motivations and with our self-talk.

We feel rewarded for certain habits

Good or bad habits are routines, and routines, like taking a shower or driving to work, are automatic and make our lives easier. “The brain doesn’t need to overthink it,” says Dr. Stephanie Collier, director of education in the division of geriatric psychology at McLean Hospital and instructor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

Bad habits are slightly different, but when we try to break a bad one, we create dissonance, and the brain doesn’t like that, says Dr. Luana Marques, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. The limbic system in the brain activates fight-flight or freeze responses, and our reaction is to avoid this “threat” and revert to the old behavior, even though we know it’s not good for us.

Often, habits that don’t benefit us still do us good, since the brain releases dopamine. It does this with anything that helps us as a species survive, like eating or having sex. Avoiding change is considered survival, and we are rewarded (albeit temporarily), so we keep backtracking every time. “That’s why it’s so hard,” Collier says.

Find the reason you want to change

But before trying to change a habit, it is fundamental to identify Why you want to change. When the reason is more personal – you want to be there for your children; you want to travel more – you have a stronger motivation and a reminder to refer to during the difficulties.

After that, you want to understand your internal and external triggers, and that takes some detective work. When the bad habit craving hits, ask when, where, and with whom it’s happening, and how you’re feeling, whether it’s sad, lonely, depressed, nervous. It’s a mix-and-match process and different for each person, but if you notice a clue ahead of time, you might be able to catch up, Collier says.

The next part – and sometimes the hardest part – is changing your behavior. If your weakness is a morning muffin on the way to work, the solution might be to change your route. But environments can’t always be changed, so you want to find a replacement, like having almonds instead of candy or frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. “You don’t have to aim for perfection, just a little healthier,” Collier says.

You also want to avoid the all-or-nothing mindset, which leads to quick burnout, and instead take micro-steps toward your goal, Marques says. If you stay up until midnight but want to be in bed by 10 a.m., the reasonable progression is as follows: start at 11:45 a.m.; the following night 11:30 p.m.; Next 11:15 a.m…. It builds success and minimizes by avoiding the new habit.

It’s also helpful to remember that cravings follow a cycle. They are intense at first, then lessen and usually disappear within about 20 minutes. Collier suggests setting a timer and focusing on “just getting through this.”

During this waiting period, the search for new sensations can be a useful distraction. You can go out and feel the wind and smell the air. You can do something physical. Collier also likes to use hot and cold. At its extreme, it plunges your face into a bowl of water, which can slow your heart rate. But it could also be holding an ice cube or taking a hot shower. “You’re focused on the feel, not the urge,” she says.

Accept that success is not a straight line

As you try to change there will be bumps and setbacks, which are part of the process of lasting change. The problem is that we are our own worst critics, and some people consider anything but a total success a complete failure.

Marques says to try to take a third-person perspective and think about how you would react to a friend who says having a bag of chips ruined their whole diet. You would be kind and reassuring, not judgmental, so give yourself the same treatment. A big part of fighting self-criticism is not seeing thoughts as facts, but just thoughts. It takes practice, but it’s the same idea as meditation. You treat what goes through your head like clouds, acknowledge them and let them pass. “Everyone has distorted thoughts all the time,” Marques says. “That’s what you do with them.”

It also helps reduce stress and minimize that feeling of failure knowing that the goal isn’t to break the old habit, because it won’t. You just try to reinforce the new routine so that it eventually takes over, and the old habit isn’t even a thought anymore. But it’s a constant process, facilitated by self-compassion, because there’s no way to prepare for every situation or to be able to predict when and where a trigger might occur.

“You can’t prepare for life,” Collier says. “Life is going to throw things at you.”

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