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How to Break Unhealthy Habits

A HABIT IS a scheduled or regular tendency or practice. Often, habits involve little to no intentional thought, like the act of showering regularly or tying your shoes. Habits can be healthy, unhealthy, or neutral. All habits are typically hard to break. Why? Research shows that when we repeat a behavior over and over, we carve a neural pathway in the brain. Given this physiological basis, it might be helpful to recognize that the inability to change behavior easily is not just because you are weak.

To break bad habits, we must change our brains. The good news is that we know this is possible. Each time you refrain from doing something you are attempting to avoid, or complete something you are attempting to create, you work toward building a new muscle and a new neural pathway in your brain.

What bad habits do you have concerning food and exercise? Here are some examples from past clients.


Every morning when I get to work, I fix a pot of coffee for the office. I drink 1-2 cups by lunch and sometimes another in the afternoon. I guess this wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that I am one of those people who like a little coffee in my creamer.

My wife and I watch all the Panthers’ games on TV and we always order our favorite pizza and drink beer.

I always salt my food. I know they say to taste the food first, but I never do. I just always assume it needs salt.

I was in the habit of getting up 30 minutes early and going for a walk before I showered. I did it all summer and loved it. But when it got cold, I stopped.

Take a moment and list some habits concerning food and exercise that you would like to change. It may take several days to complete your list. You may return to the list and add to it at any time.





Now that you have targeted behaviors that you want to change, let’s introduce some practical steps so you can start moving forward.

Recognize that this is a habit you want to change. Ask yourself what will happen if you do not carry through with it. Will you die? Will you pass out? OK, that’s a little dramatic, but you get the point. What will you miss out on if you do not give in? What does the act provide for you? I’ll give you one example. The girl in the example above who drank coffee daily after getting to work decided this act provided her with the following:

My office is usually cold and I perceive the coffee as warming and comforting. I also feel the caffeine wakes me up. I like being the one in the office responsible for the coffee. I like taking care of my co-workers. I purchase seasonal coffees for the office, and I like making my co-workers happy by surprising them with a new flavor. This practice makes me liked in the office. The thoughts of giving all this up are not pleasant for me.

Are you trying to avoid a certain feeling? Are you trying to create a certain feeling? If you are trying to avoid a certain feeling, think about how this compares to other discomforts in your life.

Think about what you will tell yourself the next time you find yourself in the heat of the moment. Maybe you remind yourself why you are trying to create a healthy lifestyle. Perhaps you have an inspirational quote or scripture that you want to refer to. Tell yourself that abstaining is possible. If you did it yesterday, you can do it again today.

In the heat of the moment, you will feel uncomfortable. To change an unhealthy habit, you must get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Rest assured that each time you refrain from the unhealthy habit, it will get easier as you resist building up the neural pathway you previously created. Your discomfort will decrease over time.

To avoid acting on your urge, come up with something else to do. The sug­ges­tions on the following page should give you some ideas of your own.

Pray Read Meditate Listen to music Call a friend

Journal Check email Do yoga Take a walk Go for a jog

Garden Do a puzzle Clean a closet Do an exercise video Watch TV

Color!* Play solitaire Play an instrument

*Coloring books for adults are mesmerizing!

Make a list of activities that you can review in the heat of the moment. Write your ideas below.

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You made it! You resisted. How do you feel? Do you think it will be easier next time you are challenged? Why or why not?