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Making and Breaking Habits
Written by Catherine Davis   

We are all creatures of habit. Our behaviour is governed not only by genes and personality but by a whole bundle of repetitive responses that put us on autopilot, meaning that our awareness isn't fully engaged in what we're doing.

Bad habits are soothing and seductively familiar. They bind us to patterns of thought and behaviour that stunt our development and may even harm us, like smoking, excessive drinking and overeating. By their very nature bad habits are hard to break, and the fact that it is difficult can lead to negative emotions and self criticism. Good habits, by contrast, increase self esteem, nurture positivity and encourage personal achievement and progress.

The sad fact is that while we fall effortlessly into bad habits, good habits need to be formed through mindfulness, self control and conscious choice. We have to decide what our highest priorities are, what we really want and value, and then have the courage and discipline to say 'no' to other things.

Flexibility

Behaviour patterns are connected and tend to reinforce one another. A cup of coffee = a cigarette, for example. It follows that if we want to change a particular habit, we have to tackle not only that one but all the habits surrounding it. To put it another way, habits form a chain, but by progressively loosening the links of that chain we can begin to liberate ourselves.

Simply making small changes in daily life – altering routines, choosing alternatives - can help us to 'unlearn' bad habits. We come to realise that we can see and do things differently – or not do them at all – and this leads to a freer, more flexible state of mind in which we exercise the power of choice.

Mindfulness

Mindfulness, or self awareness, is the key to turning unproductive, damaging habits into healthy, beneficial behaviour by which we can take responsibility for our well being and make long term changes that improve quality of life.

Start by paying attention to your bad habits. If you learn to identify the triggers that provoke the behaviour, you can minimise your exposure to them or change your response. Next time you reach for food, a drink or a cigarette, stop for a moment and think about what you're doing. How are you feeling? Anxious, frustrated, bored, lonely, angry? Then ask yourself how your habit will help. It might bring temporary comfort, but it won't make your emotions go away. In fact it'll probably just make you feel worse. Acknowledge your feelings rather than suppressing them, and then you can decide how best to deal with them.

Similarly, pin down your goals and what you want to achieve. Write a detailed list of all the reasons you've decided to change and all the advantages of doing so. Read them over several times a day to keep you motivated and to ensure that they're firm in your mind when you're tempted to stray.

Replace bad habits with good ones

Expect to experience strong cravings, but be equally aware that they will pass and prepare yourself to ride them out. Distract yourself; keep busy; replace negative behaviours with positive alternatives.

Find new ways of relaxing and/or relieving tension so as to keep your emotions on an even keel. Deep breathing and meditation are effective, and any sort of physical exercise has multiple benefits. Not only will it make you fitter and healthier, it also releases endorphins, the 'happy hormones' that make us feel good. Take up a new sport or active pastime like dancing or gardening, or simply go walking. Embark on a creative project such as painting, writing or knitting.

Remember that habits are formed by repetition and that change takes practice. The more consistently you engage in your new good habits, the better they will form; and finding something enjoyable that you can lose yourself in means you're more liable to stick with it.

Resistance

Take every opportunity to strengthen your resistance This means not giving in to sabotaging thoughts such as: 'I've had a bad day, I deserve this', 'I've blown it now so I may as well carry on', 'Just one won't matter,' and so on. The truth is that just one sip, bite or puff does matter. It makes a difference every single time you give in to temptation because it makes it more likely that you'll give in the next time and the time after that. Conversely, every time you resist makes it more likely you'll resist again, and every time you do so is an achievement.

Staying Positive

Don't expect to succeed overnight. After all, you don't plants seeds and shout at them to grow. Just as your bad habits took time to cultivate, so will your good ones. You need to be patient and persistent.

In the face of setbacks, you're bound to feel bad about yourself. When you have negative thoughts, learn to push them away or turn them around. Instead of beating yourself up for your failings, value your own efforts and successes. Stop listening to the critical inner voice that says 'you're useless, you'll never do it', and start listening to the healthy, confident part of you, the part that represents the desire to be free and live more. Positive thoughts turn into positive behaviour, so practice this as often as possible.

And remember that being kind to yourself is a very good habit to learn.

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