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Mindfulness

A Mindfulness Secret to Breaking a Bad Habit

We can't change what we don't notice.

Key points

  • More than 40% of what people do on a daily basis is habitual in nature—and bad habits are responsible for a lot of suffering.
  • Harmful behavior makes people feel terrible about themselves, but this behavior can be changed once it is noticed.
  • Mindfulness increases behavioral control, allowing one to interrupt bad habits by staying conscious.

More than 40% of what we do on a daily basis is habitual in nature; that is, carried out as we’re thinking about something else. The odds are you engage in at least a few daily habits (from nail-biting and over-eating to texting while driving and dangerous addictions) that cause harm, knowingly and unknowingly. This usually doesn't feel good to you and those your actions affect; inner shame and guilt can start to gnaw at us. Harmful actions lead to waves of upset and guilt in the mind.

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We can't change what we don't notice. So, the first step in changing them is realizing you're making these choices. With mindful practice, we can get better at noticing our choices, leading to more control and flexibility.

As you may know, it's actually in our best interest to act justly and respectfully to ourselves and others. We only get by with ethically questionable behavior (or just unhealthy habits) when we're not in touch with their true impact. With mindful awareness, you can become more sensitive to the anxiety or discomfort that arises when you choose not to do what you know would be right or healthy. These subtle moments can become naturally therapeutic or corrective with mindfulness. When we correct our own unethical, careless behavior, we notice relief from releasing that burden. Mindfulness practice makes this easier.

Unskilled behavior almost always comes from trying to avoid pain or seek pleasure (Siegel, 2009). Addiction comes from the Latin word "addicere" meaning "to be awarded to someone as their slave." It's fascinating how much unskilled behavior comes from enslavement from our immediate desires. We all seem to struggle, at least a little, with our choices around honesty, sex, work, relationships, eating, sleeping, smoking, drinking, drugs, phone use, and gambling, among many others. The problem is usually over-indulging, although we can also err on the other side of being excessively ascetic in our effort not to over-indulge. Noticing our interconnectedness with others naturally leads to wiser choices. In other words, like you'd expect, more awareness often naturally leads to wiser choices.

Wise, embodied, and ethical behavior becomes easier with time. Not living up to our own potential or values torments us long-term. Moments where we didn't behave ethically or healthfully harm us later on; we may become paranoid and expect others to treat us how we've behaved at our worst (Siegel, 2009).

How to interrupt addictive habits

Try this when you know you’re about to engage in a bad habit:

  1. Notice its triggers, like work stress or an argument, and then still do the habit—but this time as an experiment of mindfulness, engaging your muscle of (scientific) curiosity.
  2. Do the habit mindfully, slowly, and attentively like it's a sacred meditation. Single-task (many habits occur as one is distracted, like watching TV while eating or scrolling Twitter as one smokes). Notice what's going on especially before and after, and what its after-effects are. Journal the before-and-after emotions, thoughts, and body sensations.
  3. Refocus mindfully on what it feels like cognitively, emotionally, and physically after making a poor choice hours later. Does your body feel different? Are there waves of shame or self-depreciation playing in the background, requiring your distraction with more bad habits to distract from these deleterious forces? What usually happens? How are your relationships affected? Your job? Your studies? Sleep? Parenting? Health?
  4. Most people stuck in bad habits often sacrifice what they want now for what they want most. Take some time to reflect on the long-term habit if it never changes for five more years. What would be the worse part about that for you and those that care most about you? The more honest reflection, the better.
  5. How was that for you? Consider: What did you learn about yourself and the habit in general?

Mindfulness can help interrupt addictive habits by providing insight into why we use them, helping us remain conscious of their impact from the start, which can pave the way for wiser responding in, particularly in high-risk, or triggering situations. With time, these triggers can become more tolerable as we learn to notice instead of escape. "Discovering for yourself" is the core of most mindful approaches to addiction treatment, which naturally applies to breaking bad habits too (Brewer & Roy, 2021).

If we used addictions to cope emotionally in the past, we likely developed a conditioned response to craving when similar difficult feelings arise. Now, instead of acting on them, we can surf the urges (here's an example of that I created to build from this post; Siegel, 2009), which gets progressively easier with time. Mindfulness helps us see the labyrinth of patterns we get stuck in, and clearer ways out, with less suffering and more wisdom. It can also show that caving to a craving doesn't actually solve anything long-term but reinforce addictive or harmful behavior.

Unfortunately, the options for escaping hard feelings are limitless today. But the same is true of mindfulness opportunities to free you from this unnecessary suffering. Increasingly, more gaps will open between impulse and action.

References

Siegel, R. D. (2009). The mindfulness solution: Everyday practices for everyday problems. Guilford Press.

Brewer, J. A., & Roy, A. (2021). Can Approaching Anxiety Like a Habit Lead to Novel Treatments?. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 15598276211008144.

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