A habit is a behavior that is acquired, sometimes intentionally, and becomes unconscious, or nearly so. There are good habits and bad habits. Good habits can make our lives easier. Habits such as brushing your teeth or locking the door when you leave reduces the number of things to actively remember. These habits can actually make a person more efficient and less stressed.
The Evolution of Worrisome Habits
Some bad habits evolve spontaneously as a response to stress, such as biting nails or twirling hair. Biting nails leaves ugly and painful finger tips. Twirling hair is perceived as immature or neurotic. Some habits may seem initially harmless but develop into problems with health or success. Smoking may begin during the teen years as a way to fit in socially and can become a smelly, life threatening habit. Using foul language may also facilitate social interactions as a teen, but limit success in the workplace. Ways to break bad habits:
1. Acknowledge It
Bad habits can be very difficult to break. Often the longer the habit is left in place, the harder it will be to extinguish. Start early to get rid of a bad habit, and start by acknowledging the problem. It’s possible to have a habit for years and not know it until someone else gets close enough to recognize and draw attention to it. Some of the less ingrained habits may disappear simply by paying vigilant attention to one's own behaviors. Saying: “I’m biting my nails again,” may be enough to make a person consciously withdraw their hand from their mouth. Notice bad habits when they occur and consciously acknowledge them; their frequency may lessen.
2. Change the Stimulus
A habit is a behavior that becomes intrinsic to the situation. Whenever you’re riding in a car, you fiddle with the radio. Whenever you watch TV, you snack. The situation acts like a catalyst to the habitual behavior. Therefore, to break the habit, change the stimulus. In the car, try driving with a friend and engage in active conversations. In front of the TV, stand up or sit on an exercise ball that will make snacking difficult. If a certain venue or action causes the negative behavior, change the venue or action.
3. Replace the Habit
Many habits can’t just disappear into the air; they need to be replaced. In the TV show “Kojak,” the main character was a tough guy who often appeared with a lollipop, trying to quit smoking. That made sense. Smoking is an oral habit that is very hard to break, so getting rid of the offensive tobacco and substituting something less lethal is easier than trying to break the habit abruptly. If you find yourself stuck with a bad habit, consider some way it could be modified to be more acceptable. Snack on carrots instead of cookies. If your kid scratches at scabs, or inside their nose, give them a ring to twist instead.
4. Form a Negative Association
One woman smoked for decades. She took a dental pathology class as part of her education and saw horrible, detailed photos of victims of oral cancer. She went home and threw away her cigarettes. One huge or many small negative associations with a habit can be very helpful. Overweight people have found success putting photographs of themselves in a bathing suit on their refrigerator door. Some have found success putting a rubber band on their wrist and snapping it when they have a thought pattern they are trying to break. If the brain can be trained to think of something unpleasant when exposed to the habit, that association might break the habit.
5. Fill the Need
Remember, every bad habit serves a purpose. Bad habits often reduce stress or bring some kind of pleasure. Some habits even cause dopamine, a neurotransmitter, to be released in the brain. Strong habits can’t be controlled by simple means. Addressing whatever need the habit fulfills is the best way to get rid of the habit.
Alternative Treatments for Habits
Acupuncturists often claim good success with ending smoking or overeating. Anything that reduces stress may reduce nervous habits such as cracking the knuckles or biting the nails. Using aromatherapy might also be a positive diversion away from a bad habit.