Have you ever tried to break an unhealthy habit? Maybe you're considering a change in diet or you'd like to get to bed earlier. Whatever it may be, stick around. In today's blog I'll feature tips and strategies to help you along your way.
You're not alone - change is difficult.
Let's be honest, change can be difficult at the best of times. Breaking unhealthy habits can feel overwhelming, awkward, unfamiliar, and impossible at first. When we first start to contemplate change, we're sometimes met with a wall of self-doubt. We doubt our ability to ever be able to live without certain habits or sustain the change. No matter how much we want the possible benefits that we suspect will come with breaking problematic habits, the risks of possible failure or being otherwise miserable without it can be too much to act on change.
All kinds of habits can change. For some, it's a lifestyle change; you want to quit smoking or expand your social circle. For others, it's changing the way you interact with yourself and the world; you learn to change the way you speak to yourself. You may want to get more out of your morning routine, go to bed earlier, or break the cycle of procrastination.
Whatever it is, it's typically not a lack of trying that sinks us. In the beginning, we're motivated and determined to put our new plan in motion - and for a while things go well. Slowly, we start to slip into old patterns as triggers both old and new emerge. We end up feeling like we're at square one: disappointed in ourselves and possibly even less hopeful for the future. The Stages of Change Model is an excellent context for thinking about the process of change and repeating cycles.
So why is change so hard?
Think about it this way: change is hard because your brain is already wired toward the pattern you are trying to break. It's like watching 1,000 rewinds of the same movie; each time you watch that movie it becomes easier for your brain to project the movie automatically and with more ease. Your brain starts to recognize every cast member, line, feeling, and body sensation. This is a similar process that happens to our neural pathways for ingrained, automatic behaviour patterns.
Of COURSE an established neural pathway/habit is going to feel easier than an unfamiliar, new neural pathway. Change is hard because we cannot erase neural pathways that have already been established; we can get better at recognizing when they're firing and re-routing the brain to form a new neural pathway that's more aligned with your goals. This will take time and repetition before it becomes as easy and automatic as the old pathway.
For example, let's say you want to quit smoking. Your brain knows that the behaviour of smoking is associated with nicotine and the sensations that occur directly before, during, and after engaging in the behaviour. Depending on your circumstances, you may experience pleasant emotions and sensations leading up to, during, and immediately following an inhale (even the relief of stress is a significant reinforcer of behaviour). All of these links contribute to the development of a behaviour pattern that plays inside your mind and body like watching a movie on repeat.
The good news is that when we are mindful, we learn. Each time we slip up, we are introducing new information for the brain to take in and learn a new pattern of behaviour; how we respond to this slip up influences what we learn. Again, change takes time, patience, and effort.
If change is hard, what can help make the process a little easier for you? Here are five tips to consider when trying to change an old habit or routine.
Five Tips to Break Unhealthy Habits
1. Develop a 'why' statement
Start with your why.
Why is it important to change?
Why does it matter to you and/or others?
Why do you want to put yourself through the pain of changing?
Write these answers down. Screenshot them. Develop an affirmation out of your why statement.
As we discussed earlier, the road to change is often challenging and requires discipline. Throughout the process of breaking old habits, it's possible and even likely that you'll slip up, relapse, or even wonder why you're putting yourself through this hardship. A 'why statement' can help anchor you and pull you through as a reminder of your purpose. It acts as a North star to help guide you through darkness.
2. Know your triggers and make a plan
Another important tip is to know your triggers. What starts to happen even before you react? Are there thoughts, feelings, people, or situations that trigger your habit?
Spend a few days tracking your habit to see whether it follows any patterns. Try to note the following:
- Where does the habitual behaviour happen?
- What time(s) of day?
- What thoughts/feelings/urges do you notice leading up to and directly before the behaviour occurs?
- How do you feel during? Directly after?
- Are other people involved?
- Does it happen right after something else?
- How do you feel after [immediately after, several hours after, and the following days]?
Let's look at an example of getting up late in the morning: This happens when I hit the snooze button on my alarm (more than once). It happens at 6am and it's probably because I go to bed too late because I feel exhausted when the first alarm goes off. I also feel frustrated that I didn't get enough sleep.
When I finally get up at 6:45am, I feel like I'm panicking to catch up for the extra time I spent in bed. I rush to get out the door and don't get to enjoy moments like making a cup of coffee or eating something nutritious.
My partner is involved and they are not happy they have to take over getting the kids ready for school and making breakfast. I feel more exhausted throughout the day because I feel guilt and worry in addition to my physical fatigue. I try to boost my mood at the end of the day by getting more "me time", but that means staying up late and repeating the cycle.
3. Pause before you act
The most important point I can make is this: your ability to change happens in the present moment. Right now.
I know that sounds cliche, but it's particularly challenging for us to break longstanding habits, especially when we're not mindful of our automatic responses inside that guide our external reactions.
Remember, your brain is conditioned to become triggered and automatically respond. Somewhere between the trigger and your response is a small window of time; pausing helps us catch this opportunity to break the link between the trigger and your response.
This narrow space is our true freedom to change as humans.
Let's return to our example of sleeping in. I become aware of my trigger (feeling exhausted or fatigued), name it, and pause right before I hit snooze. I take a few moments to become aware of what I'm feeling in my body, the thoughts running through my mind, and take a moment to just observe. This small window of time allows me to decide what I'm going to do with this information. I can choose my valued direction (getting up) or my automatic behaviour (sleeping in).
4. Mind your inner dialogue
Change is especially challenging when we fall along the road. We stumble, feel disheartened, and return to old, familiar habits.
It's true: it's not what happens when we fail, it's how we treat ourselves when we fail that matters. People are often hardest on themselves when they screw up; as if self-criticism and self-loathing is going to make us feel enthusiastic and energized about trying again.
If we can envision a friend struggling with the same situation as ourselves, we probably wouldn't react so harshly with them. Quite the opposite, we might try to support them and actually think of the situation more objectively; it's normal to be imperfect.
So how do you become a self-compassionate friend to yourself?
First off, learn to let yourself make mistakes. You are only human and although we all strive for perfection, getting down on yourself will only make the situation worse. If your friend was going through a challenging time and made mistakes along the way, chances are you wouldn't focus on what they were doing wrong. You'd probably acknowledge their humanness and trust that they'll be okay in the end.
Being self-compassionate could mean simply changing the way you talk to yourself in difficult situations. Try switching to forgiving self-talk and using terms like, "Darling," or "Sweetheart," to address yourself. Sounds cheesy, but who's going to hear it? Just try it. Bonus points if you hold your own hand while saying it.
5. Celebrate your wins - even the smallest ones
We all want and value the change that comes when we break unhealthy or unwanted habits; yet, we often forget the smaller victories we make along the way.
If you want to feel like you're accomplishing change even before you get the big trophy at the end, try giving yourself permission to celebrate the smaller wins.
Pace yourself! Give yourself a few words of encouragement, a little dance, or a pat on the back. Give yourself permission to celebrate you - whether it's because you woke up on time for a few days a week or exercised yesterday.
Reward yourself. You can also build incentives for yourself along the way. For example, if you do X for Y amount of time, you will get Z reward. Why not? Make the journey towards change fun and uniquely your own. Don't get caught up in the idea that you have to grit your teeth or hold your breath the entire way there.
BONUS Tip: Connect with a psychotherapist
A psychotherapist is a trained mental health professional who possesses skills and knowledge to help create change and be compassionate along the way. Use them as your guide.
A trained and licensed psychotherapist can help you identify ways to break unhealthy habits and routines, while providing you with practice suggestions and valuable insight. Any good therapist will help you develop a better relationship with your internal experiences and foster skills for improving your external experiences. A psychotherapist can help you uncover your strengths, resiliency, and skills gaps, which helps them better understand which approach to change might suit you best.
Working with a psychotherapist means working with a mental health professional who is trained to listen and help evaluate your needs without judgment. Our clinicians genuinely care about helping you unpack what's happening with you and make improvements in your life - whatever that looks like for you.