Habits in general play an important role in our health. By understanding the biolodgy of harmful routines and how to break our bad habits and adopt new ones, this may help us embrace healthier lifestyle behaviors.
Habits, whether it's brushing your teeth or eating sweets, develop over time through repetition. Habits are a normal developmental process in our lives that can either be helpful or detrimental. If you really think about it, we all shower, comb our hair or brush our teeth without being aware of it, which frees our brains to focus on different things.
Habits can also develop by triggering the brain's "reward" centers, setting up potentially harmful routines such as overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling and even compulsive use of computers and social media. Enjoyable behaviors actually release a brain chemical called dompamine, which strengthens our habits - whether good or bad - even more. This explains why some people crave sweets, even if they no longer feel particularly good after they eat them.
It's not a hopeless cause, however. The good news is that humans are not simply creatures of habit. Humans demonstartate much better control at changing and orienting behavior toward long-term goals or benefits compared to any other animal. It has actually been found that you can improve your self-control by doing exercises over time.
While there's no single effective way to break bad habits, one approach is to become more aware of unhealthy habits, then develop strategies to counteract them. For example, avoid walking halls where there's a candy machine; avoid places where you've usually smoked; stay away from friends and situations linked to problem drinking or drug use.
Another helpful technique is to mentally practice the good behavior over the bad. Mindful eating, for example, is a great place to start when it comes to working on improving your eating habits. It's not guaranteed to work, but it certainly can help.
Some people find they can replace a bad habit, even drug addiction, with another behavior, like exercising. It won't always work for everyone, but most individuals can, over time, engage in ritualistic behaviors - such as running - and it can help them stya away from boredom eating, smoking or drug use.
Understand, however, that replacing a first-learned habit doesn't erase the original behavior. What you can do is strengthen the new one and suppress the original.
Current research is done by the NIH is exploring whether certain medications can help to disrupt hard-wired behaviors and make it easier to form new ones. Researchers are also are seeking genes that might allow people to easily form or readily suppress habits.
Bad habits may be challenging to change, but it can be done - especially when you put your mind to it. Make sure you take time to set goals for yourself and review them daily. You'll be amazed at how this simple step can help you when your motivation is waning. Enlist the help of friends, co-workers and family to help keep you motivated and on the right track when it comes to achieving your goals. You can do it!
Break Bad Habits
- Replace unhealthy with health behaviors. Exercise, practice a favorite hobby, spend time with family or practice relaxation exercises to better manage your stress.
- Avoid temptations. If you always stop for a donut on your way to work, try a different route. Keep fatty foods, cigarettes, alcohol and other tempting items out of your home, car and in at your workplace.
- Prepare mentally. If you can't avoid tempting situations, prepare in advance. Plan how to handle temptations and mentally practice what you plan. Bring healthy options with you to meetings and/or get togethers. Eat before you go so you're not starving when you get to an event. Plan where in your day you're going to exercise - don't leave it to chance because chances are, you won't do it without a plan.
- Enlist support. Ask friends, family and co-workers to support your efforts to change. Tell them what kinds of "support" will help you and what kind "support" will send you in the other direction. Parameters are key!
- Reward yourself for small steps. Give yourself a healthy "treat" when you've reached a small goal or milestone. Healthy examples include: going for a pedicure; a new haircut; downloading a favorite song onto your iTunes or a new book onto your Kindle; planning a "date" with your significant other; hiring a babysitter to watch the kids and taking the time for yourself to do whatever you'd like. Be creative and make it something you'll really enjoy. Avoid rewarding yourself with food - it's too much of a slippery slope!