Ah, habits. We’ve all got them. What’s yours? Stress eating? Overspending? Nail biting? These are only a few examples of the millions of hard habits to break. Ranging from pesky little obsessions (like twirling your hair) to full-blown stakeholders (like substance abuse), a habit is an ingrained pattern, influenced by many tributaries, and triggered by a myriad of feelings. It’s tough to always know their exact origin, but most begin as a subconscious strategy for dealing with uncomfortable life situations. Even your best tried-and-true coping mechanisms, however, can turn dysfunctional; especially if they repeatedly defy your better judgment, create a deficit in your life, or make you feel weak. The first step to breaking a habit is to try to understand what’s driving your habit.
Think of your habit as an instinct for self-care: you are doing it because it feels good at the time. This may seem a stretch especially since guilt, worry, or shame and all the ups and downs that come with it feel anything but good. But if you look past all of the drama, and zoom in on the basics, the habit is like an amplified fidget—the body’s way of offloading stress. Your cravings, urges, and impulses are simply physical prompts to grab your attention. Like pain, it’s the body’s way of communicating a concern, and allowing you the opportunity to consciously respond. Essentially, your habits are a primordial form of communication—expressing an unmet need. Habits are a type of ritual designed by your animal intelligence as a way to deal with challenges. They actually carry important messages and play a vital role in helping you manage in everyday life.
A habit provides a distraction from unpleasant thoughts or feelings, offering an escape from loneliness, anxiety, boredom, disappointment, etc. Habits are a kind of subliminal practice, where you check out of reality. But to break habits, you need instead to check in—to show up for yourself. Acknowledge your habit as a reminder to get grounded in the present moment. When you learn to sit with uncomfortable feelings, the ones your habit allows you to avoid, you’ll deepen your trust in yourself for your own capacity to hold space for the natural rise and fall of sensations. Make “checking in” your new practice—a type of internal meditation where you appreciate the impulse (however uncomfortable it may be) as information about what you need. This way, you consciously honor the habit as one option to meet that need, while becoming aware of and opening up to many more healthy alternatives.
- Practice Thought-Trending. When the craving occurs, identify what’s on your mind. Try to get a sense of what’s trending in your thoughts. Acknowledging your mindset will give you important insights around what’s triggering your cravings.
- Change Your Position. Many habits are triggered by stress. When you notice that stress, worries, or self-criticism are driving a craving, take a few deep breaths and notice the overall shape or stance of your body. Adjust your thoughts by changing your physical position. For example, if you are hunched over, this can add to your mental slump. Try standing up, jostling your jaw, and opening your heart and lungs by stretching your chest.
- Delay Knee-jerk Reactions. When you feel yourself triggered, take 20 seconds, or even two minutes, to check in with your body by systematically moving your awareness from one body part to the next. Mentally adjust yourself, starting at the feet, legs, hips, ribs, chest, shoulders, arms, neck and head. This type of body scan practice will increase the space between the trigger and your response, possibly diffusing the situation and over time, even becoming r preferred option.