Breaking Unhealthy Habits

Hello, I’m Dr Emily Shaw, a Clinical Psychologist working with Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. I want to talk to you about breaking unhealthy habits.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced us to drastically change how we go about our everyday lives and continues to present significant uncertainty. At times like this, you might be experiencing difficult feelings more often and more intensely, whether it’s stress, anxiety, loneliness or boredom to name just a few. It’s not pleasant to feel this way, so we’re inclined to search for something that is going to give us some immediate relief and this is just when old familiar habits start to return. Those things that give us a momentary pick me up, a feel good boost or help us to temporarily block out uncomfortable feelings. But they’re also the things we wish we didn’t need to rely on because we know they come with a cost; to our health, our relationships or even waste our valuable time. It may even be habits that you’ve previously been able to overcome that you’ve noticed creeping back in. It might be smoking, drinking too much alcohol, biting your nails, eating junk food, going to bed too late, spending too much time on your screens or maybe avoiding exercise. There’s a whole host of habits we can easily pick up during difficult times.

One of the biggest obstacles to breaking these habits and forming new healthier habits is the mind itself. Habits are formed when we do something enough times it becomes automatic. These behavioural patterns are imprinted in our neural pathways, so it can take a lot of effort and repetition to create new pathways. Particularly during more challenging times, our minds prefer the path of least resistance, seeking out the habitual behavioural patterns that have already been formed. So the mind has all manner of tricks to talk us into returning to our old habits and avoiding any new ones: ‘There’s no point in trying’, ‘Just one chocolate won’t hurt’, ‘You can start again on Monday’, ‘Go on, you deserve it’, ‘Don’t bother, you’re going to fail anyway’.

So if we want to make a change in our life, we have to be aware of our habitual responses.

One way to help you take a new direction is through slowing down and being BOLD.

BOLD is a series of steps that will help you to reprogram your behavioural patterns and create new directions in your life.

Let’s go through each one now. You may want to write them down on a card that you carry around in your purse or wallet, or have stuck on your fridge to remind you of the steps.

B stands for breathe.

By becoming aware that you’re breathing and taking a slower and deeper breath the parasympathetic nervous system will become activated, which is responsible for creating a sense of calm in the body. By consciously breathing you’re also pausing whatever else you’re doing, putting the brakes on your usual automatic habitual behaviours. This small moment of pause can be enough to help break the habit.

O which reminds you to observe.

Here we take another moment or two to simply observe what is happening. Notice what thoughts are here, perhaps some unhelpful ones that try to bring us back to our familiar behaviours. Notice what feelings have shown up that could be important to listen to, and really observe what you’re doing in this moment.

L stands for listen.

Listen to yourself. What do you most want for yourself in this moment? Instead of listening to your thoughts and feelings that don’t always have our best interests at heart, get in touch with what’s important to you right now.

D stands for Do what matters.

Commit to what YOU really want to do and follow through with it.

By slowing down and running through the BOLD steps, you’ll find you’re able to experience a greater sense of ease and respond more effectively when we are drawn towards an unhealthy habit.

Go through these BOLD steps over and over. It takes time for new behaviours to become more automatic. And be kind to yourself along the way. You’re bound to slip back to old patterns from time to time, gently return back to the BOLD steps and try again.

Emily Shaw is a Clinical Psychologist working at Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. Here she speaks about the unhealthy habits we may have turned to during the pandemic to give us immediate relief and how we can reprogram our behavioural patterns by practicing being BOLD.