There is no silver bullet solution for breaking bad habits.
Let’s just get that out of the way.
But what I hope to provide you is a variety of options that will help you decide what works best for you, and then apply those strategies in your own life.
Enter popular neuroscientist and nerdy brain guru, Judson Brewer (or Dr. Jud).
He argues that using mindfulness is an effective way to combat bad habits like smoking, overeating, and excessive screen time.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness essentially boils down to awareness.
In meditation, awareness is usually placed on the breath. In. Out. In. Out.
There are so many ways to practice mindfulness in your life, but for the purposes of this article, we will lump everything that falls under “being aware of your mind and body in any given moment” (not lost in a daydream) as mindfulness.
Just try it for a moment.
Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through the mouth. Relax your shoulders by removing them from your ears. Lower your tongue from the roof of your mouth, soften the muscles around your eyes, and take a few deep breaths.
Brewer wants you to approach your bad habits in a similar manner.
First, let’s explore why this bad habit exists.
The Neuroscience Behind Breaking Bad Habits
Our brains run on what Brewer calls a “trigger, reward, repeat” cycle. This should sound familiar from our previous post on how habits work.
He gives a few examples, but I will recap the example of food for you quickly.
We are hungry (trigger), we see cake and eat it so that we are no longer hungry (reward), and now we are happy. Next time we are hungry, we will eat food again to get the same reward (repeat).
Unfortunately, our brains can get this terribly wrong.
It can remember that cake made us feel really good, so the next time we don’t feel good (sad, upset, angry), our brain thinks that cake could help us out so we scarf down a big slice. Instead of the physical trigger of hunger, we have now linked to an emotional trigger of feeling bad.
Eventually, we become overweight emotional eaters, or maybe we are freezing our asses off in the snow, while taking labored drags on a cigarette that we just had to have.
We know it’s wrong. We try to fight it, but it’s not working.
This is where mindfulness comes in.
Brewer delivers some bad news in his talk about the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that helps us stop doing dumb stuff like overeating and smoking or binge drinking. It is one of the first regions that shut down when we are stressed.
Perhaps you’ve noticed this. I certainly have!
This has always been the number one struggle for me when I have tried to break bad habits in the past (like smoking, bleh!). I
get the slightest bit stressed and all sense of willpower evaporates. Its’s like if you don’t participate in this terrible habit of yours, your head might explode.
So if we can’t fight our way out of these habits because our defenses are down, what do we do instead?
Mindfulness In Action
In a trial with smokers who wanted to quit (been there), Brewer taught clients to stop fighting their urge to smoke.
Instead, become curious about smoking.
The people in the trial were told to keep smoking, but whenever they smoked, to focus on the experience of smoking itself and nothing else.
I smoked for nearly 20 years and can tell you that smoking for me was mental check out time, so the act of focusing on the cigarette itself would be an enormous change.
One client reported back that when she just focused on smoking, she became immensely aware of the horrible smell and taste. As Brewer suggests, “the spell of smoking” started to break.
Does that mean the client suddenly stopped smoking?
Absolutely not! (Remember the whole bit about the prefrontal cortex shutting down during stress?) But it does mean that she was able to start rewiring her brain’s relationship with smoking.
Okay, but how does this actually work?
Let’s say you are a smoker. You begin by really focusing on your smoking. Here are some questions you can ask yourself while you’re lighting up and puffing away. (You can adapt and change accordingly to fit whatever habit you’re currently dealing with if smoking isn’t it.)
- What do you smell?
- What do you taste?
- How does your body feel when you smoke?
- Does a rush hit your brain?
- Does your nose start to get a little congested?
- What are lungs doing while you smoke?
Chances are you don’t love what you’re experiencing in that moment. Keep observing your smoking whenever you do it. You could easily adapt the same strategy to overeating.
- How does this smell?
- How does this taste?
- What does you body feel like right now?
- Are you energized or sleepy?
Notice how it makes you feel before, during, and after so you can unpack what’s really going on there.
How To Handle Emotional Triggers When Trying Break Bad Habits
What about when you’re stressed or upset or sad?
The first instinct is to grab the smokes. That’s fine. You can, but before you do, be curious. Something bad just happened to you. You broke up with a significant other, you had a fight with your sister, some jerk cut you off in traffic.
What is happening in your body right now? Are the hairs on your arm sticking up? Do you feel flushed? Is your heart racing? Is a lump forming in your throat? Do you feel anxious? Are tears forming? Are your muscles tense? How long do these reactions last? Does it change after a few seconds or remain the same?
If you still feel inclined, light up your cigarette (or eat the cookie or take a drink). What is the immediate effect in your body? Did it solve the problem for you? Do you feel better, worse, or the same?
Chances are it did not fix the problem, and if you’re actively trying to break a bad habit, you will probably end up feeling worse after the emotional satisfaction of having your “treat” passes.
Continue doing this every time you engage with your bad habit or feel triggered to do it, and with time, it will lose its hold over you. You’ll be better equipped to see the habit for what it is.
There is something innately powerful in not allowing yourself to get swept up by emotion. The mere act of stopping to notice what it feels and looks like in your body and brain when you’re extremely pissed off will help you detach from it and react in a healthier way.
Again, this is not a magic wand.
You will have to do this over and over and over until it clicks for you, but it can and will click eventually. Fighting your cravings is not likely to work. Understanding them, observing them, and detaching from them, however, can help you change your relationship with whatever habit is plaguing you.
Does Any of This Actually Work?
Yes, but only if you want it to work and have the discipline to give it a chance. I’ve done this with smoking and have been smoke-free for almost four years after what felt like dozens of failed attempts to quit in the past.
It did not happen overnight.
In fact, I got overwhelmed by “fighting” it and chain smoked for an entire week before getting it right on the next attempt by taking a more mindful approach.
It takes time.
Maybe it will click for you in a couple weeks, or maybe it takes a couple months. Everyone is different. It WILL work if you let it.
So get after it!
Think of something in your life that you want to change right now. Employ these methods for a few weeks and see how things start to shift and change for you!