Can you break a habit?

Once a habit is formed, breaking it can become difficult. Here are some practical ways

As we discussed in this article, the connections formed in the brain can make habits really hard to break. These habits are programmed to stick around due to the neural circuits in the brain. As soon as the brain is exposed to the cue/context, the areas responsible for the response light up on their own, and you tend to repeat the behaviour.

Although it can be difficult to break habits, it’s not impossible. Some tips to help you get started:

  • Be mindful. Every time you tend to slip into one of your old ways, be aware of what you are doing and how it is making you feel. Seeing what we are getting from our habits helps us know it at a deeper level.

  • Replace the habit.Replace the current habit with something less harmful. For example if you are trying to quit binge eating, keep a pack of gum nearby so every time you feel like putting something, in your mouth, it is handy. Replace fatty high-calorie food with healthy food: you’re likelier to make a healthy choice if your options are apples and pears, not apples and chocolate ice-cream. Don’t keep cigarettes at home.

  • Avoid triggers.If you’re more likely to overeat or smoke during a particular activity, such as  watching a late-night movie by yourself, avoid these triggering activities or situations.

  • Understand the habit.Understand the habit rather than doing it recklessly. Make a conscious effort every time you pick that cigarette up to your mouth to light it. Do a SWOT analysis by listing out the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats as this will make you more aware of the habit that you investing yourself into almost unconsciously.

  • Put it in writing.It’s easier and more motivating to stop behavior if you make a written note of it rather than making a mental note. Download an app that lets you record your food and calories, or another which helps you track the cigarettes/other substances and reminds you of the associated health risks.

Try these tips to get started and feel motivated. But if you’ve already tried these without much success, do seek medical help. Addictions are not easy to deal with by oneself. External help from professionals is often required to do away with it completely and help fight relapse.

This article was prepared with inputs from Dr. Poorva Ranade, independent psychologist and counselor.

References

Dr Judson Brewer, "A simple way to break a bad habit."
Association for Psychological Science, "How a Habit Becomes an Addiction."
editors, Benjamin J. Sadock, Virginia A. Sadock. Kaplan & Sadock's Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry. Philadelphia :Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2000.