Habits usually start out as slow steps or small choices that lead to actions becoming a part of our daily routine. Before we know it years can go by as unhealthy habits can be our safe place, our crutch, our sense of sanctuary. We may not even realize we are performing some of these habits, they become part of our subconscious operation. Like most challenges in life, breaking old cycles and creating new ones in our habits and coping mechanisms requires a thoughtful holistic approach.
1) Identify the Actual Root Cause
It’s vital to not only identify what the habit is, but WHY you even perform this action in the first place. I can’t say I’ve ever met a smoker who claims to use tobacco products because they enjoy coughing or raising their cancer risk. Smoking is typically bore from the need for calm and stress relief, until it becomes a physical craving and need. Stress can manifest in a wide array of behaviors such as nail biting, over-eating, angry outbursts, smoking, drinking, I’ve even met people who had slowly removed their eyelashes from plucking them during stressful times. Stress is just one variable in unhealthy habits. Understanding why, can help you identify a plan of action.
Some examples of Root Cause of habits:
• Overeating due to equating food with love and safety
• Smoking related to stress and seeking relief from our bodies nicotinic receptors
• Nail Biting, Hair pulling, Skin Picking due to anxiety
• Excessive Consumption of Sugar/Carbs can change your Gut Flora to naturally crave them more
• Excessive Screen time on TV or Phone as a need to escape reality
• Being a Pack Rat of items out of a fear of loneliness or loss
2) Identify Triggers
After Identifying the Root Cause, you want to prepare for urges by recognizing what triggers your habit. It’s easy to say you will rely on your will power, but if we’re not prepared for the moments of weakness we become easy prey to mental chains of comfort and habit. You can identify triggers by reflecting on what is going on when you perform the habit and journaling is a powerful way to keep track of and identify triggers. For example, maybe you pick your skin when you’re nervous, so you create a plan by buying a stress ball instead. This will keep your hands busy. Ideally, you can remove the trigger from your routine or environment. However, if you cannot entirely avoid the trigger you can create an action place for alternative steps to take. This leads to point number 3..
3) Replace the Habit with a Healthier Alternative
The Quitting “Cold Turkey” Approach to breaking a habit is often unsuccessful for many, and It’s not due to lack of willpower. If you look into how the human brain works we operate on complex systems, connections, and subconscious workings that direct all of our choices big or small. Willpower has nothing to do with it. By simply stopping a bad habit, you are creating a void in your routine and coping mechanisms that leaves room for over indulgence of said habit or you may even replace one habit for another. For example, folks who quit smoking may be prone to snacking to replace the time lost in their routine and lack of another healthy alternative. It’s true, we’re not actually “Breaking Habits” but what we are actually doing is exchanging harmful behavior for a more constructive one. If you love soda, consider seltzer or flavored water in replacement. Instead of smoking you may find relief with the oral fixation and (especially if you like menthol) chewing gum or mints for the minty shock to the taste palette.
4) Enlist a Support Person or Group
Enlist anyone you trust to be a support to you while you’re making changes in your lifestyle. Sometimes we indulge in our habits when nobody is watching, and this can make the indulgence even sweeter. However, if there are loved ones helping you hold yourself accountable for your behavior it becomes a little harder to mentally push aside the consequences of our actions. You can’t depend on another person to be your only motivation, but It does help to have a trusted shoulder to lean on to avoid temptations and celebrate our victories.
5) Small Goals are Much Less Daunting
I’m guilty of wanting results FAST. If I don’t see big change or the (often unrealistic) goals I set for myself I feel like giving up entirely. However, this isn’t the best way to be kind to yourself or create a long term plan! For example, if you are trying to find healthier snack alternatives but don’t like many fruits or vegetables start with slow and subtle changes. My guilty pleasure is potatoes! And who doesn’t love a fresh cut French fries (or Chips for my UK Pals!). I allow myself to have them every once in a blue moon, but without self-restraint I could indulge in them multiple days a week. Instead of frying them you can consider baking them in the oven or air fryer with delicious seasonings. You’re still getting the potatoes, but it’s prepared in a better way by being baked rather than fried in grease. Small Steps for the win! If you wish to get more exercise, start small with only a few days a week at home rather than signing up for a gym, making extensive exercise regimens, and starting slow can prevent injury. Moral of the story here is, small changes are much easier to face than massive life upheavals. Humans naturally enjoy routine, changing the routine too fast can lead to failure.
6) Give Yourself Grace and Patience
Remember as I said at the beginning of the post, our unhealthy habits can form over or sustain themselves for many years. These habits may even feel like part of our identity. Celebrity Model Ashley Graham is a perfect example of this. A few years ago, she was shamed online and in social media by many folks claiming her choice to lose weight meant she wasn’t an advocate for full bodied women. You may feel a loss of identity with you let go of certain habits. These habits that likely formed over many years of experiences, environmental factors, and maybe even forces outside our control will not go away overnight. If they took years to form, they will take time to break and replace. If you stumble and give in along the way, recognize even though it is a setback, it’s NOT the end of the line. Forgive yourself, be kind to yourself, as you would if you were supporting your loved one in your shoes.
7) Recognize When you Need Professional Help
It’s important to recognize that sometimes a habit is more than just some bad choices or behavior. If your habit has taken control of your routine to the point where you cannot function in daily life without it, you may be faced with an addiction or an issue such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. With an addiction or diagnosable disease you will require some form of support and need tools for coping and manifesting a healthy lifestyle. All the steps above are helpful, but they will not be sufficient for dealing with a serious condition such as addiction. It sounds cliché, but it’s very true that the first step to change is being able to recognize that you have a problem. You wouldn’t let your loved ones suffer in silence, so why would you do that to yourself?