5 Tips for Breaking Unhealthy Habits
Tip One: Notice if your habits have become automatic
Most of the time when we engage in unhealthy habits, we do it automatically. In fact, our minds are generally preoccupied thinking of something else while we pick up the cigarette, finish a bag of chips, have that extra alcoholic drink or settle into the couch to watch TV rather than going for a walk.
Automatic behaviors are largely unconscious, meaning we don’t really think about them. We often don’t even notice that we are doing them.
Tip Two: Practice Mindful Awareness
Some people find that they can stop an unhealthy habit cold turkey. For most of us though, it takes a conscious process over time.
The first step is to practice mindful awareness. Because these habits largely occur automatically and unconsciously, we need to regain our ability to notice and be present to what we’re doing when we are doing it, without self judgement or criticism.
Without changing the pattern of the unhealthy habit at all, we simply bring our awareness to it. We smoke the entire cigarette or eat the bag of chips while being present to the activity and the sensations of what we are doing.
Many people find that simply deciding to engage in the habit with full awareness, lessens the frequency and amount of their unhealthy patterns.
It’s almost as if we subconsciously choose to turn our awareness aside and not notice when we are doing something that conflicts with our own values or what we most want in our health and well-being.
By turning back around with a kind and compassionate awareness, we notice again the full experience of the habit we are engaged in.
Tip three: Become Aware of daily triggers
In addition to our unhealthy habits being largely automatic, they are often tied to other events of our day.
Those can be events in our day such as eating or driving or they could be times of day.
For example, we pick up the cigarette after we eat or when we get into the car, we eat more food than we really want or need while engaged in conversation, we settle into the couch at the same time every day to watch TV.
Tip Four: Become aware of emotional triggers
In addition to being tied to events in our day, these habits are often tied to other emotional triggers.
We eat when we’re sad, angry, stressed, lonely, excited or bored. We grab a drink or a cigarette in the same way.
Tip Five: Ride the urge wave
Eventually, with practice, we notice the urge to engage in the habit even before we do it. Noticing the urge and learning to ride the wave of discomfort that comes when an urge develops, gives us time to choose to engage in the habit or not.
When we are aware in this way, we can choose to experience the urge without engaging in the habit. The mind likes pleasure and avoids pain as a survival mechanism. The problem is that the mind is focused on the short-term pleasure and pain, not the long term. In order to change a habit, we need to train the mind to manage the short-term pain of not giving in to an urge.
It can seem as though the urge lasts forever and keep escalating in intensity until we give in. In fact, though, most urges generally only last from 1-5 minutes.
They arise, intensify, peak and then resolve and we are free of them for a while.
Although urges often return, they grow less frequent and less intense if we don’t engage them with our thoughts or “feed the habit” by giving in to it. Riding the urge wave will enable us to live the life we really want and to break through automatic behaviors that hurt us.