Behaviors that we engage in routinely and repeatedly are habits. Without these behaviors, life will be hard to function. We become efficient in performing complex tasks because we learned them; now they are internalized by us and we do them without thinking. For example, talking, playing an instrument, speaking, typing are skills that are now ingrained in our system. Our brain does not have to think and we are capable of performing these routine tasks without conscious efforts. Therefore habits are very useful for us but there are habits that we have formed which are not so productive and are considered bad. For example, scratching, nail biting, facial twitches, tapping, and shaking feet. These habits can be very annoying and unpleasant for others in social situations. Habits like nagging, criticizing, attention seeking, manipulation can also be considered annoying; we engage in these activities without making any conscious effort. However, they can backfire on us. It is important to break these bad habits for better interpersonal connections and social etiquettes.
Habits are learned behaviors so they can be unlearned with extreme dedication, persistence, and awareness. The more we engage in our habits the more they become entrenched and reinforced in our system. However, every time you try to do something different from your habits, they tend to weaken them and the new alternative behavior gradually becomes strengthened with repeated use. Habit breaking involves step by step approach. There are six steps to breaking habit according to Drs. Gilian Butler and Tony Hope.
1. Decide to Change
2. Use of awareness training
3. Devise strategies to help in stopping the habit
4. Replace the habit with an alternative behavior.
5. Persist by being consistent and keeping track of progress.
6. Learn to manage lapses.
Step 1. Decide to Change:
First and foremost thing about breaking habit is to make a determination that you want to part with the habit and you are most determined to break it. When you think about the disadvantages of the habit, you will be more inclined to do something about it. Also, it is equally important to think about the benefits that you will get, once you break the habit. Imagine the worst possible consequences of going on with your habit and this will motivate you to do something about it. You can nip your habit in the bud by this first step. Some people develop a bad habit of checking things to the point that it becomes obsessional and interferes with normal day to day functioning. Once you become aware of why you want to change this habit, it becomes clear and easy to break it.
Step 2. Use awareness Training:
In order to stop your habit, you need to first be aware that you have a bad habit then only you can stop it. It is also important to understand the detailed description of your habit. For example if you bite nails, you might need to ask, under what circumstances you do it, which finger nail do you usually bite, how does it feel inside when you engage in this type of behavior and so on. You will also need to monitor your habit and get to know the frequency and circumstances when you usually engage in these behaviors. For example, if you pull your hair, do you do it at work, or at home and also know what is going on with you when you do this. Study your habit record carefully week after week. You will be able to see an emerging pattern and will be able to find out the antecedents of the habit. What triggers your habit? Do you criticize others when you feel attacked? These are environmental triggers that provoke you and make you do these behaviors. Pretty soon they become habits and you don’t even make conscious effort; they happen automatically. Sometimes self monitoring itself reduces the frequency of your habit because you are more aware of it now.
Step 3. Devise Strategies for stopping the habit.
Be on the guard when you are most likely to engage in the bad habit so that you can catch it before it starts. Then try to develop a STOP strategy. When you catch yourself doing a bad habit, stop doing it right away by saying the command of ,”STOP” to yourself. It might be helpful to write the STOP on an index card with colored letters and read this card to stop yourself from hair pulling, nail biting or whatever bad habit you are trying to break. It might be a good idea to seek support from someone else who can observe you and give you the right feedback about your habit breaking intervention. Continue to monitor your habit sheet and reward yourself for success. IF you feel that your habit is getting worse, do not get discouraged. It is possible that you might see more frequency of your bad habit in the initiatl stages. It is because you are trying to keep track of something you were doing automatically or it could be because it could trigger more anxiety and tension and the frequency is increased because of the anxiety and tension. This stage does not last too long so do not give up.
Bear with yourself and remain persistent.
Step 4: Replace the Habit with an Alternative Behavior.
When a habit involves the use of a hand, try to occupy the same hand in an alternative activity so that it is incompatible with your habit of hair pulling or nail biting. Playing with a toy or play doh can help or clenching your fist for a couple of minutes, putting on gloves or using a comb can stop the hair pulling habit. These are annoying habits and also very unpleasant in sight, so it is important to make an effort to break them. Additionally, using a hand cream or manicure set can be used to address the nail biting habit. Sometimes people rub their eyes until they become sore and infected. It might be helpful to wear eye make up so that you will be afraid to touch the eyes for the fear of smearing your make up. It is also a good idea to assess what kinds of feelings generally prompt you to engage in your bad habits. If you know it is tension, anxiety, worry or boredome, then try to do something about it. If you are untidy, then developing good organization skills will help you find things when you need them. If you have a bad habit of interrupting others, then develop good listening skills.
Step 5. Persist on Being Consistent and Keeping Track of Progress.
Consistency and persistence are the two most important steps for habit breaking intervention. If you work hard the first week but then begin to slack, it will not help you reach your goals. You need to be constantly on the go and monitor it in order to weaken the habit. You might experience feelings of let downs and an urge to give up but this will not help you. Make sure you reward yourself for all your efforts and keep thinking of the advantages of breaking the habit. Keep your habit record and become fully aware of the moments when you catch yourself “in the act”.
Step 6: Learn to Manage Lapses
Habits have a tendency to recur until they are fully broken. Since they are automatic, they tend to re emerge. Therefore you will need to make a strong effort to break them fully to avoid this recurrence. If the lapse occurs, try to find out why it occurred and continue to make your efforts to break the habit. The more you try, the better the chances of your habit to disappear. You might want to say, I have dealt with this before and I can do it again. Do not treat this as a relapse. This is just a lapse and you can always pick up the pieces and move on again.
In this way, we see that these six steps will help you break the habit and you will have a better chance to avoid social embarrassment, reduce your anxiety and tension, and live a normal life. Habits can become very addictive and may lead to smoking, drinking and drug abuse. If you do not take care of yourself, you will be living with your bad habits for the rest of your lives. It is important to keep the awareness of your bad habits like obsessional thinking, repetitive mannerisms, twitching, facial grimaces, nail biting, tapping, frowning and many other mannerisms that you automatically do. Some of these are caused by internal tension, cumulative stress, depression, unresolved conflict, repressed feelings of anger, passivity, timidity, and bereavement too. The good news is that you can address them by following the six easy steps mentioned above. If you are experiencing some of the feelings mentioned earlier, it might be a good idea to seek professional help and address those unresolved feelings. Cognitive behavioral therapy is also an alternative and engaging in mindful meditation can also help relieve the tension and anxiety. Mindfulness therapy is becoming very popular and it is really effective in addressing anxiety and depression which often give rise to these bad habits. Progressive muscle relaxation is also a good technique to feel relaxed. Visualization with guided imagery also helps reduce tension and anxiety
Reference: Managing Your Mind by Gilian Butler, PH.D, and Tony Hope, M.D.