Get Curious About Your Bad Habits

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confident woman standing with wineglass and cigarette

Have you ever wondered how you started the bad habits you currently have? Whether they are smoking, drinking, sweets and snacking, or doom-scrolling on social media, they all started innocently enough.

But after some time with them, you begin to realize, they are not moving you in the direction you desire. In fact, they may very well be moving you away from what you want and where you want to go.

You’ve probably tried to rid yourself of these nasty habits, but it’s hard. You just don’t have the willpower to try one more time. It’s too painful and it never ends the way you want it to. It just feels like one failure after another.

That might sound a bit dramatic, but it might also ring true in some instances.

So, what if I told you that you could break your bad habits without extreme doses of willpower, and without the excruciating experiences of loss, delay, or aversion?

What if there was a way that was nearly effortless, and really got to the core of the problem, delivering you into a sense of control, a space of understanding, and ultimately a feeling of victory?

That would be pretty awesome, right?!

Well, today we are going to explore the most effective way to break those bad habits and fix our minds once and for all.

First, let’s talk about the elephant in the room. Its name is anxiety. I know, I know.

You’re probably saying, “But I’m not anxious!”

Of course, you’re not. Everything is fine and you’re in total control all the time.

But for the rest of us, let’s consider what anxiety might look like or feel like.

It’s Thursday afternoon and you’ve got that itch. You know, that little nag of feeling bored, or that little nudge of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), or maybe it’s something like, “I should be more productive.”

And THAT is how bad habits are formed. These anxious feelings create the crave for safety, comfort, or relief. And so we automatically do something that relieves the itch.

So we eat chocolate when we are stressed or depressed. We check social media when we are bored or anxious. Or we put off that important task because it is just a bit too intimidating right now.

Whatever it is, just know that this is all totally normal and ought to be expected throughout your day.

But it doesn’t mean you have to stay in that habit loop for the rest of your life.

Oh, what’s the habit loop? It’s three things. Trigger > Behavior > Reward.

Here’s what it looks like in real life. You are struggling with a work project and feel stressed about it (trigger), you look in your desk drawer and eat that chewy, crunchy candy bar (behavior), and then you feel better (reward).

But how long does that reward last? And how much better do you feal really? Sure, you have a sugar rush and a big dose of dopamine, but that soon goes away leaving you feeling a bit guilty, resentful, and no further along in your project.

So how do we break this bad habit of resorting to sugary snacks, or any other habit for that matter? What do we do next time we feel that itch, or that urge, or that craving?

We go ahead and let that habit loop begin. Don’t try to stop it. Don’t even try to come up with an alternative. Just let the crave take you over.

Wait? What? Just give in? Seriously?

Yep, just give in.

I know you’re probably thinking, but I need to fix the trigger, so I don’t get to this point in the first place.

Two things: one, you’re never going to eliminate stress; and two, the trigger is the weakest link in the loop.

The way you break a habit is by changing the reward.

So how do we do that?

Once you get into that candy bar (or whatever your default reward is), take a moment to ask one important question.

According to Dr. Judson Brewer, author of The Craving Mind and Unwinding Anxiety, the best way to beat bad habits is to be intensely curious. He says, that while you are indulging in your reward behavior, ask yourself, “What do I get from this?”

Start at the surface, and then dig deeper to see what is really going on in your body and your mind. You might begin with “this tastes so sweet, and the chocolate is so smooth and creamy.” And then you might feel the satisfaction of the chewing and crunching and swallowing.

And as you ask again “What do I get from this?”, you might discover that it is sticky in your teeth and that is actually rather annoying, or you might feel a slight burn on your tongue and throat as the sugar dissolves.

Upon further exploration, you might stumble on the longer-term effects like the upcoming crash from the current sugar rush, or the extra work you’ll have to do to counterbalance those empty calories, or maybe even the guilt from your own lack of control.

Getting clear on all of the rewards (or the resulting consequences) allows you to start to unwind the “trigger-behavior-reward” cycle and actually change the part of your brain that keeps track of how rewarding an activity really is.

Now if you’re have having trouble getting yourself into the answers from “What do I get from this?” try using the RAIN method of curiosity and inquiry.

RAIN is an acronym of the letters R, A, I, N.

R stands for Recognize.

Practicing mindfulness during your habit loop, you become aware of the swirl of thoughts, emotions, and sensations in your body. Pause and recognize what is happening here. You’re experiencing some type of stress and your brain is ready to move into action. Once you recognize that something is happening, move to the next step.

A stands for Accept.

Allow the unpleasant feeling to exist within your body without immediately trying to push it away or distract yourself from it. Just let it be there. Accept what you are feeling. After all, it’s just a sensation or emotion. It will fade soon enough.

I stands for Investigate.

This is where curiosity takes the front seat. Investigate your thoughts, your feelings, and any sensations that are occurring. Put on your scientist lab coat and try to figure out where in the body these sensations are coming from. How strong do they feel? And when have you felt them before?

Once you’ve exhausted your investigation, move to the last phase of the RAIN method.

N stands for Note.

Describe each craving sensation in terms that you’ll remember. Is it restlessness? It is tightness? Is it a feeling of loss or guilt? Learn to recognize and then classify these trigger sensations. Your body sends you signals constantly, so learning your body’s language allows you to take the wheel and take control.

Following these four steps to answer the question, “What do I get from this?” helps us to lessen the ingrained reward by rewriting this entry in our brain’s database.

Right now, you may be wondering, “What did we change in regards to the reward? I’m still eating chocolate!”

Good question. What we’ve done is actually hijacked the reward system itself by introducing the sensations of awareness and curiosity. We’ve rewired the habit loop, so the reward is the satisfying feeling we receive from curiosity instead of cake or candy.

And as I’m sure you’ve surmised by now, breaking this habit won’t happen in one or two instances, but neither have your other methods of habit breaking. It will likely take many tries and that’s ok, because that will allow you to practice your mindfulness again and again, building your powers of awareness and curiosity.

So how will you react to your next craving? How will you use the RAIN method to recognize, accept, investigate, and note the sensations you are feeling? And how will you build a practice of awareness and curiosity as reward replacement to break those bad habits?

If you want to learn more about breaking your bad habits, I highly recommend you read or listen to The Craving Mind and Unwinding Anxiety by Dr. Judson Brewer and follow him on Instagram at dr.jud.

Your Mindful Moment:

Break bad habits by rewriting your rewards.

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