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3 Ways to Break Your Most Troublesome Mental Habits

New research shows how negative mental habits interfere with your happiness.

Key points

  • Mental habits are automatically-generated thought processes that occur in response to particular cues or situations.
  • As influences on psychological disorders, mental habits form a general, “transdiagnostic” category that can apply across specific symptoms.
  • Identifying your 3 types of mental habits can help you break the ones that interfere with your own psychological health.

Some habits can keep you on track to meet your personal goals. Getting up at a certain hour and carrying out your daily routines according to a schedule, for example, are components of good time management. In fact, the less you think about whether or not you want to engage in these behaviors, the better. If you honestly considered the pros and cons of working out as soon as you arise, you might come up with a myriad of reasons not to, reasons that become more compelling as the day goes on and other concerns occupy you.

Habits involving your use of time, energy, and activity can clearly help you organize your life and keep you on track. However, habits that involve negative ways of thinking can take on a different and much less productive quality in the way you interpret your experiences and even how you view yourself. According to the University of Ottawa’s Eamon Colvin and colleagues (2021), habits can become cognitive processes, or ways of engaging your thoughts, that become automatically activated under certain key conditions, or cues.

When Do Mental Habits Become a Problem?

A physical habit, when viewed as a process, tends to be triggered by a set of circumstances. You see a “Don’t Walk” signal flash red when you’re about to cross the street, so you stop without giving it much thought, or at least you quickly dismiss the idea that you could scurry to safety in time. Stopping in place is a response you’ve learned to associate with the signal. The Canadian authors argue that, similarly, your mental habits become prompted the more often they become associated with a given situation.

Mental habits, the researchers maintain, take on that status of being a “transdiagnostic mental process” whose negative focus could account for a variety of disorders involving anxiety and depression. People with anxiety and those with depressive disorders may differ in the content of their thoughts but the habitual nature of those thoughts and the fact that they arise spontaneously cuts across the diagnostic distinctions.

One key feature of a habit, then, is that it occurs outside the realm of intention. Even if you don’t want to engage in the habit, whether a thought or an action, you will do so when the situation presents itself, whether in the reality of the moment or in your memory. The individual with social anxiety disorder can generate the habitual response of feeling judged just by thinking about past social situations. In other words, you don’t have to be in the actual situation to have the habit kick into high gear; you just have to conjure it up in your own head.

This seemingly uncontrollable quality of a mental habit can be particularly limiting because even if you try to reduce your exposure to a potentially threatening situation, you can easily return back to the situation in your own mind. What’s more, even if you wanted to stop the thought from springing up in your mind, you’d be unable to do so if the habit is strongly enough entrenched.

Research Tests the Role of Habits in Mental Health

Using the method known as a “scoping” review, the Canadian research team decided to investigate what they refer to as the “habit lens” as they examined research on the mental processes involved in a range of psychological disorders. In a scoping review, researchers don’t actually summarize previous findings, but instead clarify the concepts in the existing literature and identify gaps in the knowledge base that could become, in the next round, a systematic review. The authors then applied this approach to the findings of 24 discrete studies carried out within 20 investigations.

The authors of the studies included in the scoping review used a variety of measures to identify unproductive mental habits. Some measures tapped into specific types of thought patterns, including poor emotion regulation, self-critical thinking, habitual worrying, and negative body image thinking. The participants in these studies ranged from representative samples and non-clinical adult and college student respondents to individuals receiving clinical treatments. Additionally, some of the studies used experimental methods involving interventions to reduce negative mental thought patterns and others followed participants over time to examine the role of these patterns in psychological symptoms.

After reviewing these studies for broad themes and relevant gaps, Colvin and his colleagues identified mental habits as distinct from negative thoughts and their associations with psychological symptoms. However, in noting the gaps in the literature, the Canadian authors concluded that “the concept of “mental habit” has yet to be integrated with related concepts in psychology, such as automatic thoughts and repetitive negative thinking." Clearly, then, there is much to be gained from applying the “habit lens” to understanding your own potentially dysfunctional mental processes.

3 Types of Mental Habits and How to Reverse Each One

One of the most widely-cited measures in the U. of Ottawa study review is called the Self-Report Habit Index (SRHI), a 12-item index developed by the University of Tromsø’s Bas Verplanken and University of Essex’s Sheina Orbell (2003). Pick the mental habit that represents your most likely candidate for changing as you think about each one of these items.

Thought “X” is something ...:

  1. I do frequently.
  2. I do automatically.
  3. I do without having to consciously remember.
  4. that makes me feel weird if I do not do it.
  5. I do without thinking.
  6. that would require effort not to do it.
  7. that belongs to my (daily/weekly/monthly) routine.
  8. I start doing before I realize doing it.
  9. I would find hard not to do.
  10. I have no need to think about doing.
  11. that's typically “me.”
  12. I have been doing for a long time.

Perhaps the mental habit you chose involved self-criticism and your tendency to immediately associate thoughts about yourself with the idea you’ve done something wrong. Now look back again at these 12 statements and see how you might break that habit. As you do, you can see that they fall into 3 categories of habit-breaking approaches:

  • Frequency. Although Colvin et al. suggest that a thought doesn’t have to be frequent to be a habit, you can see that people with such a dysfunctional habit engage in this behavior relatively often and for a long time (items 1, 7, and 12). To reduce the frequency of your self-criticism, for example, try to notice every fourth self-critical thought you have and see if you can bring the number down by one until you eventually reach zero.
  • Automaticity. The idea of a habit being an automatic association is central to Colvin et al.’s approach. To move out of this cycle look at the set of items from 2 to 6 and 8 to 10. Noticing how many of these apply to your own mental habit can help you tell yourself to “stop” when that automatic self-critical thought occurs. Distracting yourself with another set of thoughts is another way to break the chain.
  • Identity. People develop mental habits that can become a central part of “who” they are. Just as you regard your physical habits and activity as being part of your own view of your identity (“I’m a healthy eater”) you can regard your mental habits as intrinsic to your sense of self (“I’m just always so hard on myself”). Redefining yourself as someone who isn’t controlled by your mental habits can even jump-start your ability to reverse other debilitating features of this negative process.

To sum up, you can bring mental habits under your conscious control once you decide to follow these three basic steps. Of course, some mental habits are useful and productive, a fact not lost on the Canadian researchers, who propose that “positive mental habits might promote mental health." Once you extract yourself from the hold that negative mental habits have on you, it may be possible to tap into those growth-oriented habits that ultimately can provide your own route to fulfillment.

LinkedIn image: Sam Wordley/Shutterstock. Facebook image: Mangostar/Shutterstock

References

Colvin, E., Gardner, B., Labelle, P. R., & Santor, D. (2021). The automaticity of positive and negative thinking: A scoping review of mental habits. Cognitive Therapy and Research. doi:10.1007/s10608-021-10218-4

Verplanken, B., & Orbell, S. (2003). Reflections on past behavior: A self-report index of habit strength. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 33(6), 1313–1330. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1559-1816.2003.tb01951.x

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