How To Overcome Bad Habits For A Healthy Life

Bad habits are unconscious recurrent behaviors that negatively affect your life. Fortunately, there are efficient methods that can help you getting rid of them. Learn more about the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

How To Overcome Bad Habits For A Healthy Life

Bad habits are unconscious recurrent behaviors that negatively affect your life. Fortunately, there are efficient methods that can help you getting rid of them. Learn more about the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

Here's Why You Must Get Rid of Bad Habits To Be Healthy

Did you ever ask yourself what is stopping you from reaching your goals? Have you ever noticed that somehow, the same things keep happening to you through the years?

Maybe you’ll be relieved to know that billions of people are in the same situation and also that many of them successfully get over these negative patterns every day. Every day new persons achieve awareness of self-flaws and learn how to fix them so they finally reach their goals or the lifestyle they’ve been dreaming of for so long.

Bad habits aren’t necessarily there to stay forever and to endlessly intoxicate your life. Thanks to the continuous evolution of psychological research and neurosciences, experts have developed mental tools that can make you rewrite your own fate. One of these trending methods is called the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy or ACT.

Acceptance and Commitment Therapy is a branch of clinical behavior analysis, developed for the first time in 1982 by Dr. Steven C. Hayes. It’s a psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies to increase your psychological flexibility.

Scientific evidences proved that psychological flexibility is beneficial and leads to healthier outcomes. In the case of ACT, experts define flexibility also as “being aware of thoughts and feelings that unfold in the present moment without needless defense, and depending on what the situation affords, persisting or changing behavior to pursue central interests and goals.” (Kashdan, Todd B, and Jonathan Rottenberg. “Psychological flexibility as a fundamental aspect of health.” Clinical psychology review vol. 30,7 (2010): 865-78. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2010.03.001)

In fact, the experts explain that being more flexible, more open towards emotional experiences, being willing to engage in difficult activities, to persist in the direction of important values and goals, is what allows a person to pursue a rich, and meaningful life. This is exactly why, in order to detect unnoticed toxic habits that stop you from meeting your long-term goals you should definitely know how to use this Acceptance and Commitment Protocol.

First, let’s describe what’s a habit and what’s a bad habit. A habit is an action or a behavior we get used to repeat unconsciously without real analysis. Like finding your way to the bathroom and washing your face despite your eyes are still half closed.

Scientifically, habits are defined as “rigid repetition of actions that can be initiated without intention and that run to completion with minimal conscious control.” (Neal, David T., et al. “Habits—A Repeat Performance.” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 15, no. 4, Aug. 2006, pp. 198–202, doi:10.1111/j.1467-8721.2006.00435.x.).

Experts also say that this automation of actions discharges the consciousness from action’s supervision, what can restrict flexibility. This may explain what turns you mad when a sudden factor prevents you from performing one of your favorite habits (or bad habits) like smoking, taking a nap or hanging out with friends.  You probably lost much of your flexibility to adapt to an unplanned routine change, due the automation process. (Bernácer J., Giménez-Amaya J.M. (2013) On Habit Learning in Neuroscience and Free Will. In: Suarez A., Adams P. (eds) Is Science Compatible with Free Will?. Springer, New York, NY)

The definition of a “bad habit” instead is a bit more complicated to describe, as the concept of “bad” and “good” may be very different from a person to another depending on their life goals, philosophy and cultural background. However, we can at least be sure that:

  • A habit that has a negative impact on your physical or psychological health is probably a bad one. Examples: smoking, alcohol abuse, auto-frustration, dramatization…
  • A habit that may cause harm or put others in danger is definitely something you should get rid of. Examples: Irresponsibility, dangerous jokes.
  • Any habit that is in opposition with your long-term goals is also a bad habit. Example: excessive distraction, toxic frequentations, counterproductive activities.

Now that we know what bad habits look like, let’s move to how to react to them according to the Acceptance and Commitment protocols.

We assume that you have spotted a number of your own “bad habits”, from this moment you have to look at them from a neutral point of view. A kind of observing yourself in the mirror and answering basic questions like:

  • Why am I doing it? What triggers this behavior? What is the goal or the rewards for this habit?

This kind of pragmatic auto criticism is very useful to raise awareness about our own habits. In fact, because they are repetitive tasks our brain perform them automatically and because you did that action so many times before your nervous system estimates that the process doesn’t need further analysis or attention anymore. You’re exactly like a plane on the autopilot mode, so taking a second to ask; where the aircraft is going and why? would be of crucial importance for your strategy against “bad habits”.

Once you can associate a “bad habit” to its triggering signal or its origin, you’ll be able to plan how to fix it or how to adapt so you still keep moving forward toward your goals.

For example, imagine that one of the “bad habits” that is slowing you down is the very common “Procrastination”.

Now you need to understand why you automatically keep pushing tasks for later, is it because you feel tired? If so, you have to find what is the reason behind this endless fatigue, maybe there is a hidden health issue or a dietary insufficiency that translates into such mental and physical laziness, you probably can fix this easily if it is the case.

Or maybe you have a silent fear from moving around, meeting and facing people, taking decisions… and this silent fear keeps delaying actions that can expose you to others or to the external environment. If this is your situation then you’ll have to work on strengthening your will. It is good to listen to your inner voice from time to time but your thoughts should always be dominated by your conscious acts.

Turn your will to reach your goals and values into your main mental engine, give it so much space so it overcomes your innate fear and push you one-step further in the right direction. Hold on tightly to your dreams and make them the daily compass you use to navigate through life.

You could also be procrastinating because of a suffering. If there is a physical or a mental health condition that is sucking your motivation it’s time you deal with it. For example, in the case of someone with a back pain or arthritis, it is normal that we expect from his mind to avoid choices where there is a physical activity. With the passing of time, this will become a “bad habit”. The person may decline automatically any opportunity to go out and have fun of just live life normally in order to avoid the physical pain. According to the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, if the sickness is inevitable, the person must learn how to cope and adapt with the level of pain not how to avoid it. Studies about the ACT even showed that learning to psychologically accept and adapt to a suffering significantly decreased the levels of the perceived pain. The authors explain that their findings support the use of ACT in treating anxiety disorders, depression, addiction, and somatic health problems too. (A-Tjak, Jacqueline G.L. et al. “A meta-analysis of the efficacy of acceptance and commitment therapy for clinically relevant mental and physical health problems.” Psychotherapy and psychosomatics 84 1 (2015): 30-6.)

Through their studies, neuroscientists suggest another helpful technique to overcome challenging automatic behaviors. This one is focused on the context, David T.Neal and collaborators explain that the change of the habit’s context can disrupt the performance of strong habits, bringing them under intentional and conscious thinking. This moves the completion of the habit from the automatic process to the analytical process and the individual will finally have the occasion to think about achieving that action or not. For example, a person addicted to caffeine decides to give away its coffee machine in order to lower its own coffee making.  In fact, every time she/he goes automatically to the kitchen she/he will rediscover that context has changed as the machine is no longer there. If any other source of coffee is far enough to discourage this individual from having one more cup then there are high chances she/he will succeed in reducing the daily uptake of caffeine. The same tip may work for studying, if you keep being distracted by the computer, the phone and the TV when you’re trying to prepare for exams at home, try changing the context. Go to the library and leave the smartphone home, every time you’ll take your attention away from your books you’ll find yourself surrounded by people diving in their studies and this will potentially help you to focus back on your important task. If you do this often enough, you’ll end by replacing the bad habit of pretending to study at home with real learning at the library and this thanks to the context change.

To sum up, scientists confirm that there are many strong mental protocols that can help a person rewire its own brain and get rid of the automatic negative behaviors. Through the Acceptance and Commitment protocol, we focus on a neutral auto-criticism of the daily routine to identify the bad habits. Then, these habits should be targeted by actions that either replace them with good ones or train the mind on how to ignore their calls.

On the other hand, through the “context modification” technique it is no longer the individual who is directly targeted but elements present in his environment and considered of primary importance for the persistence of the bad habit. Therefore for a healthier life, the environment of the individual wanting to improve its own motivation or concentration on life goals has to be reshaped in a way that prevents negative behaviors from occurring again.

Allie Leon, Chief Fun Officer

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