Breaking the habit

How habits can help us create positive, supportive change

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Habits are something that we all have, but there’s a big difference between healthy, supportive habits and habits that aren’t good for us. So how do we make our habits work for us? We spoke to Patricia Ashe, a counselling psychotherapist, to find out the best way to change our habits.

“We’re not being very conscious or using our cognitive powers when we’re doing something out of habit. So what that tells you is that we can form habits and they get hard-wired into a certain [part of] our brain, so we do things automatically,” says Patricia.

A habit is formed through the process of repetition and Patricia likens it to building a muscle.

“If you wanted to strengthen your inner core muscles then you’d start doing certain exercises. A habit is formed by doing it once and repeating it,” explains Patricia.

As we all know, as well as positive habits, bad habits exist and they can be detrimental to our quality of life. If we know that certain habits are actually causing us harm or are bad for us, why do we compulsively keep doing them?

“A bad habit is formed just as quickly, or even quicker actually, than an ordinary habit because there’s usually a pleasure piece to it… We do anything to avoid pain and therefore by definition we find pleasure seeking quite easy.”

With the added value making them even harder to break, what’s the best way of untangling yourself from the clutches of a bad habit?

“One of the first things would be that you need to have determination [and] to have decided that there’s something you’d like to change. So you might make yourself speak about it. Speaking about it is really Neuro Linguistic Programming which means that you’re forming the words in your own mind and you’re letting them be said, so it’s come up to a cognitive level in the brain,” says Patricia.

“First of all decided what the habit is. Very clearly decide what the habit is that’s doing you no good. Make a decision. Speak about it. Have a chat with somebody else. Say the words out loud. Be reasonable with yourself. Think about the times we may have wanted to break habits and they failed, and why did it fail? Have a real think about this.

Patricia advises breaking down your plan into easy, bite-sized steps and making a solid plan.

“You know, ‘I’d like to get fit this year’, okay, so have you bought the walking shoes? What are you going to do? ‘I’m going to walk the pier every single day.’ Oh, every single day might be a bit of an ask. How about doing half the pier twice a week? The plan should be reasonable [and] the decision should be clear.”

It’s also worth keeping a solid record of the progress that you make. Given the hold that bad habits can have on us, it’s unsurprising to learn that most require consistent time and effort and to make any progress on giving them up. A common stumbling block is when you breach your bad habit and the wheels come off completely.

“Let’s say I have a breach and I have decided that I’m going to walk the pier at least once a week and the day of my week turns out to be Hurricane Ophelia. I’m going to let myself off the hook and I’m going to get into the habit of officially and cognitively letting myself off the hook and I will not consider it a relapse. I’ll consider it to be a breach or a glitch or whatever word works for you. A bit of a flat tire.

“All I need is air in my tire again. It’s not a full stop, it’s a comma. I haven’t fully relapsed. I still have my plan. I have my programme… if you’ve had a breach, if you’ve had a glitch, you’re already in your plan so why not go back to the plan? And in your notebook or wherever you’re keeping your record, note it and see why that breach came about. Try and look at the 24 hours before it happened… Maybe there were a number of stresses that caused these habits to come back in. I’d look to the stressors, or triggers, that might have let me tumble a bit and I might begin to see a pattern – oh hang on, every time I go out with that lot I tend to use stuff I don’t want to be using. Or every time I feel helpless about my job, I need something and I go and buy a mega bar of chocolate.”

The most important part of the process is that you let yourself off the hook and get back to your plan as, we all now know, habits (even the good ones) are formed by doing the same thing over and over again. So why not do the positive, nurturing action over and over until it becomes a healthy habit? 

Woman's Way