Habits — good or bad — are often described as things people simply “fall into.” But is the process really so passive, or does the human mind have the ability to build and nurture a good habit — or rid itself of a bad one?
We checked in with two local experts — Melissa Baranowski, a licensed professional counselor in the behavioral health department at UChicago Medicine – Ingalls Memorial Hospital in Flossmoor, and LaSaundra Gordon, a child, adolescent and adult therapist at New Leaf Resources in Lansing — to better understand how the mind can foster and nurture the good and bad habits that we “fall into.” The following is a lightly edited transcript:
Q: What are some of the key factors that tend to influence the good or bad habits that people form?
Baranowski: There are many factors that can influence a person’s habits including their self-concept, trauma history, cognitive distortions, mood or the way a person was raised. Habits become adapted by biological, environmental and social factors. The brain is triggered when to use a habit. When habits are rewarded, they often become part of a routine. An example is when someone has a bad day, and they start to tell themselves negative things, like ‘I am not good enough’ or ‘I am a failure,’ thereby forming a bad habit. A good habit would be to talk about the bad day with a friend or tell yourself ‘I had a bad day but tomorrow is a new day.’ The brain makes connections between thoughts, ideas, actions and consequences, thus forming habits.
Gordon: Influence and childhood shaping. We learn from our family of origin our ways of thinking and behaving. What we see modeled, we repeat. The messages don’t need to be spoken, just modeled. It’s as simple as being told to make your bed daily as a child, which turns into an ingrained belief and behavior that your bed should be made daily. Or it may be as serious as staying with an abuser if one of your parents was abusive and the other parent stayed. We may not choose the same type of abuse, but generally we choose someone with either abusive traits or who abuse in other, less obvious ways. For example, if there was physical abuse, we avoid that person but aren’t aware that we’ve selected an emotional and verbal abuser and it feels safer because the physical seemed worse.
Q: What are some techniques for training the mind to form good habits or break bad ones?
Baranowski: Identifying the triggers to the habits would be the first key to attempting to change or form a habit. Analyze and process the reward or consequence you feel from a bad habit, for example. Ask yourself: Is it healthy? What do you get out of it? Is it a temporary fix to a bigger issue? Educate yourself on the reason and importance of the new habit. Make a list of the reasons you want to change your habit. Set a goal and make a plan for the habits you would like to form or change.
There are many helpful ways to stay on track: Meditation, mindfulness, exercise and yoga can help you deal with the anxiety or stress of changing or forming habits. Cognitive restructuring and positive self-talk can help motivate you to continue with changing or forming habits. Keeping a routine can condition yourself to stay on track with your habits/goals. Accept that you are not perfect and it is OK to not always stick to routine. Life happens. If you do go off track, make a plan of action for how to keep on track.
Gordon: First, one must become aware of unhealthy patterns. I cannot stop doing anything I am unaware of. Once I become aware, I can take active steps to retrain myself. Becoming aware and paying attention to automatic thoughts, which, in turn, cause automatic behaviors, and replacing those thoughts with new, more healthy, intentional ones is important. Some language that we use to describe that process is capturing distorted thinking or mistaken beliefs and intentionally creating positive counterstatements to combat the thinking.
Also, we must recognize that it takes time to change and give ourselves that time. With intentionality and time, change will happen. For example, if I start journaling when upset with my spouse, I may initially continue yelling and saying inappropriate things; but over time, as I continue to lean more on my journal to release my emotions, I will learn how to communicate more appropriately and effectively with my partner instead of continuing to speak in anger and say things that are inappropriate and ultimately destroy our relationship.
Q: Is it generally more difficult to develop and solidify a good habit or to break a bad one?
Baranowski: You can learn a new habit or unlearn an old one, but it is generally more difficult to break a bad habit. Breaking a bad habit involves reconditioning your mind to form new habits, which can take a lot of time and work. Making a good habit is like having a blank canvas. It is easier to learn something new and have a better understanding of it to develop good habits.
For instance, if your bad habit is negative self-talk where you constantly tell yourself you are stupid, believing you are stupid can become part of your internal beliefs. It is going to take a lot of reconditioning your mind with positive self-talk and affirmations to unlearn those bad habits. If you have never had the bad habit of negative self-talk or self-defeating behaviors, then learning a new good habit of positive self-talk can help lay the ground work for a good self-esteem.
Remember that things take time. Be patient with yourself. Small steps are still steps in the right direction. Do not give up! Reward yourself after sticking to your goals to help assist with motivation.
Gordon: All change is work and takes time. Whether it is changing your diet and exercise habits, smoking cessation, learning to control angry outbursts or talking with friends when upset versus isolating. Learning a new skill or habit takes work because I have to retrain my mind and learn new behaviors.
Change is a process and a part of that process is relapse. We just have to remember to get up, dust ourselves off, and go right back to our new desired behavior.