There were weeks in the year when I found myself entranced on my mobile phone hiding under my blanket, and not feeling able to sleep. Knowing that the phone was not helping seemed insignificant in those times as I would feel stuck in the pattern of scrolling down my screen until I wore myself out completely. It was like a part of my mind was saying, “Get off the phone silly,” but my fingers would stubbornly reply, “You’re not the boss of me!”
Passing out would finally happen due to extreme exhaustion, and even after a full night of sleep, I would wake up feeling mangled and fatigued… I know you’ve been there too!
It is one thing to know the effects of technology use before bed, talk about it amongst colleagues and friends, and another thing to practice healthy habits continuously through-out our lives.
One thing I know for sure is that as a human being, I can practice healthy and positive habits that enrich my life such as meditation or eating well, however habits that are unhelpful can also exist in my life at the same time. This is because we are amazing multifaceted beings, never fitting into the one box completely.
It has helped me to know from experience and from working with my wonderful clients that beating an unhelpful habit is ever changing, ebbs and flows through-out our lives, and requires consistent work.
We exist within our environment everyday which influences our moods, stress levels, and energy levels which can alter our routines, sense of safety, and sense of confidence. We can be certain of ourselves one day, and the next be a walking, talking contradiction. This is all a part of being human!
So, when you notice an unhelpful pattern hovering and ready to come about in full force, it is okay to take a breath and know that you can reverse it without berating yourself or adding a sense of guilt into the equation.
When you notice that an unhelpful habit is beginning to impact on your functioning, and is feeling uncontrollable, or no longer serving you in a positive way, it may be time to pay mindful attention to it.
Unhelpful habits may be subtle or not seem to have an impact on our wellbeing on the surface, however when they become unnoticed, unaddressed, and left to continue, they begin to increase in frequency and severity. By the time we have noticed that we are addicted to unhealthy foods, technology, unhealthy relationships, or damaging behaviours, it has already become a ‘normal’ part of our lives, making it increasingly difficult to change. Reversing unhelpful habits can be difficult and takes mindful conscious commitment. What you are doing is re-wiring unhelpful coping neural pathways in your brain into helpful coping neural pathways. Cool, huh?
Remember, unhelpful coping behaviours usually serve as a quick fix to avoid discomfort. The ‘gratifying’ effects are short term and feeds further into a pattern of avoidance and mental un-wellness. For example, you sit down to write an assignment and then find yourself mindlessly opening the fridge door, seeking a sweet snack to help you avoid the discomfort of study. You get a sugar hit, and this has served a great way to procrastinate and avoid, which can then become a pattern of avoidance. On the other hand, practicing healthy coping behaviours serves us more for the long term and pulls us away from mental un-wellness. For example, you take a deep, mindful breath when you approach your assignment, helping you to manage and “ride through” feeling overwhelmed and stressed. This helps to build patterns of navigating discomfort, rather than avoiding it completely, and you become more equipped to addressing and dissolving difficult feelings. This second approach takes more time and needs to be practiced repetitively to establish strong neural pathways, however the effects are long term and encourages a sense of wellness, safety and positive coping strategies. This will transfer to other areas of your life too!
6 Tips to begin reversing unhelpful habits and move towards more helpful and healthful ways of living…
1. Take some time out and acknowledge your habit and how it is impacting on your lifestyle, relationships, and general functioning.
2. Notice when you are feeling exhausted, upset, overwhelmed, stressed, lonely, anxious, or hungry. These can be triggers which encourage us to fall back into previous unhelpful neural pathways in our brains leading to avoidant and addictive behaviours. In these times, we are most likely to fall into unhelpful habits (i.e. zoning out on technology, or eating junk food).
3. Catch yourself when you feel the urge to fall into the habit, or while you are doing the undesired behaviour. This is an important step. When you catch yourself, acknowledge what you might be feeling at that time leading you to fall back into your pattern (example thought: “I am drinking more than usual these past few weeks – I must be feeling very stressed and overwhelmed lately…How can I soothe myself in a helpful way rather than avoiding my discomfort by drinking?”).
4. When you acknowledge that perhaps you are feeling stressed, upset or lonely, find an activity that is soothing and directly alleviates tension such as slow breathing, telling someone you trust, or filling your body with nurturing/nourishing food. When we are stressed, our brains tell our bodies that we are needing comfort and safety. By replacing an unhealthy immediate soothing behaviour (e.g. drugs and alcohol) with a healthy soothing behaviour (e.g. having a bath, spending time with a loved one), we are setting ourselves up for long-term changes towards healthy and helpful coping patterns.
5. Getting someone you trust on board with curbing an unhelpful behaviour will help you to feel supported, reminded, soothed, and self-aware.
6. There is never a ‘perfect’ time to reverse unhelpful habits. You can start at your own pace and at any time. Share your experience with others or a professional counsellor/healer for further clarity, insight, tools/strategies, and support. It is a process and a journey and one which you do not have to endure alone.
Remember, replacing healthy patterns of behaviour with unhelpful patterns takes time. It can be easy to fall into the trap of thinking that something does not work if you try it a few times and it does not seem to be helping. The brain needs repetition to create new neural pathways and this can only happen if the new healthy behaviour is done over and over again, moving you towards a healthy happy lifestyle.
© Christina Leggett, Psychologist