The Difficulty of Breaking Bad Habits

Have you ever wondered why it's so difficult to quit something harmful, even when you know it's bad for you? Many people struggle with this, whether it's smoking, overeating, gambling, excessive use of social media, or dealing with alcohol or substance addiction. 

Habits often develop through repetition and can be both beneficial and harmful. 

Habits become an automatic part of our daily routines. For example, we wake up every morning, brush our teeth, wash our face, and brush our hair, without being aware or thinking about actually doing it. These habits and automatic routines can be developed with the help of the basal ganglia which is located in the forebrain region of our brain. This can be a good thing because if our brain is not conscious while doing these things, then it can open up space to focus on other tasks. 

Habits can also develop through pleasurable and enjoyable events that trigger the brain's "reward" centers. Unfortunately,  this can lead to the development of harmful and negative routines such as smoking, overeating, alcohol and substance addiction, gambling, and more. 

It appears that both positive and negative habits have similar brain mechanisms that cause them. However, research reveals that negative and pleasure-based habits are much more difficult to break. 

Why Are Bad Habits So Difficult To Break?

Enjoyable and pleasurable events, such as smoking and gambling, trigger the brain to release a chemical called dopamine. Dopamine plays an important part in habit formation by strengthening the habit and creating strong cravings even when the behaviour is not being engaged in. This is why smokers crave cigarettes even when they're participating in unrelated activities, and drug users experience cravings for substances even when they're not using them or have quit.  

Therefore, it seems that certain parts of the brain almost work against us when we try to break our habits by triggering the brain's reward centers and initiating cravings, even if we know they are bad habits and we need to stop. 

Another reason why it's difficult to break habits is because we often get stuck in an all-or-nothing form of thinking, where we believe that our efforts are either a total success or a complete failure. This thinking sets us up for disappointment and makes it harder to develop positive changes. Therefore, we need to develop a more flexible mindset by recognizing small steps forward as progress in order to see lasting change.  

Additionally, we often underestimate the process and difficulty of breaking habits. This typically makes it easier for people to become discouraged and stop trying after they haven't seen results in a short period of time. Remember, lasting change doesn't happen over night and it requires self-control and persistent efforts. 

Furthermore, when trying to break bad habits, we often forget to acknowledge that small failures and set-backs are possible along the way. Knowing what you now know about the difficulty of breaking bad habits, you can understand why they may be so difficult to break and why it's possible to experience small set-backs. Therefore, it's important to acknowledge these set-backs but don't allow them to discourage you from continuing to try and moving forward. 

How To Break Negative Habits 

Fortunately, despite this and the difficulty of breaking habits, humans have various other brain regions that can help, and are capable of breaking habits and making decisions towards long-term goals and benefits. Although exerting willpower against negative habits/temptations can be draining at times, regularly practicing self-control can actually strengthen the results. 

Engaging in regular acts of self-control can allow individuals to become stronger and more resilient against their temptations and cravings. Simply being aware of your negative habits can be quite helpful in breaking such habits. This awareness can then help you to develop strategies that can contradict the habit. Although one strategy does not work for all, it is worthwhile to try different methods and see what works best for you. 

First and foremost, it's important to identify your desired outcome and set attainable goals that you can work towards. Instead of forming big ambiguous objectives, try setting smaller and more achievable goals that can take you one step closer to your desired outcome.

For example, if there is a place where you typically smoke, you can practice self-control and try to avoid going to that location until your cravings get smaller and become non-existent eventually with time. Similarly, you can avoid spending time with people or at locations that trigger a need for you to drink alcohol or engage in substance use. 

Mental visualizations can also be helpful in these situations. For example, you can mentally visualize yourself being offered a cigarette and rejecting it. Although this is not guaranteed to help, it can be beneficial.

Replacing negative habits with new and positive habits can also be helpful to certain individuals. For example, some people replace negative habits such as substance use with a healthy habit such as consistently exercising, or replace smoking cigarettes with chewing gum. These alternative behaviours can help lessen the urges and cravings to go back to negative habits. 

If you or a loved one are struggling to break your negative habits, our compassionate team are more than willing to assistant you in your journey towards a healthier and more fulfilling life. So, please don't hesitate to contact us, we are here and ready to offer our assistance.