As New Year’s Day approaches, NewsWorks speaks with experts in the areas of fitness, financial health, habit-breaking and adventure-planning for tips on how to reach for the resolutions you may (or may not) be saying you’ll honor starting Tuesday.
Nail biting, cigarette smoking, overeating and a compulsive need to use electronic devices are just some of the bad habits that can become unwanted parts of one’s day-to-day life.
To help break those compulsions in the new year, NewsWorks spoke with a quartet of psychological counselors in the Northwest Philadelphia area to identify bad habits and offer advice on how to break them.
‘Red flags’ to look for
Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist in Chestnut Hill, defined bad habits as behavioral patterns sometimes characterized by “at least some minimum amount of destructiveness to oneself or others.”
“When people think of bad habits, they probably think of things like nail-biting, interrupting others or smoking,” she said. “I also tend to think of bad habits as being automatic behaviors.
“In other words, they are behaviors that happen without thinking, and sometimes without any real awareness that you are doing them.”
Genie Ravital, LCSW, of Mt. Airy Psychotherapy Practices, said stress is often to blame.
“Bad habits can stem from a feeling of anxiety, anger or sadness,” said Ravital. “We’re usually sitting with some kind of negative experience or emotion, and subconsciously, we’re looking for comfort.”
Deborah Owens, a licensed counselor and certified advanced alcohol and drug counselor in Chestnut Hill, noted that any habit that negatively effects personal health or functioning can be a serious concern.
“If it begins to interfere with your vision for yourself or negatively impact your relationships, school or work, then that’s a red flag that change is needed,” said Owens.
“People can enjoy the internet, for example, but if it keeps them from proper sleep, handling responsibilities like home, work or school projects, or interferes with maintaining healthy relationships, they may need to take a look at that behavior,” she added.
Habits taking on a ‘life of their own’
Tacie Vergara, Psy.D., recently relocated her practice from Chestnut Hill to Wyndmoor, Pa. She said everyone has habits and that many are useful in how they “help us to manage the internal and external stresses of daily living.”
“I think most bad habits begin unintentionally and then take on a life of their own,” she continued. “I am of the opinion that no one sets out to develop a bad habit and/or addiction.”
Habits become “bad” ones when they interfere with the health and welfare of self and/or others. Vergara offered four questions to consider:
1. Is the habit a potential and/or real health hazard?
2. Are you putting yourself and/or others at jeopardy?
3. Are people who are important to you repeatedly expressing concern?
4. Do you find yourself in a never-ending cycle of making and breaking promises to yourself?
Habit versus addiction
While bad habits can typically be treated by an individual, Heck said addictions may require more professional help.
“Bad habits, in my opinion, can often be broken with conscious effort,” she said. “They are typically within your power to control.
“An addiction can’t be curbed with sheer will-power. I have found that drug and alcohol use becomes habitual, and perhaps addicting, because it serves to help a person to avoid some other feeling. And, it is the avoidance of a bad feeling that often leads to addictions.”
To that end, she often asks patients to confront their feelings instead of turning to substances.
“I challenge them to face their unwanted feelings head on, unmasked by drugs or alcohol,” she explained, “because I believe that people actually can confront their feelings, however bad they may be, and survive them, without having to mask them with substances.”
She recommended joining self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous or Gambler’s Anonymous for those suffering from addictions.
Road to change: Cultivating awareness
Ravital advised that in order to break a bad habit, a person must accept it.
“The first step is cultivating awareness, without judgment,” said Ravital. “When you notice that it bothers you, or when you feel self conscious about it, you may start to get the feeling that it’s something you want to change.”
Whether it’s binge eating or watching too much TV, it’s important to make a plan for what you’ll do the next time your bad habit is triggered.
“Set a very specific intention for yourself,” said Ravital. “Really articulate what you want to stop doing, and think about what you want to do in its place.”
As an example, she advised nail biters to apply hand lotion instead.
“Your intention should not be too general. You want to focus on small specific changes,” said Ravital. “You can take very small steps to break down a bigger goal.”
However, planning positive habits can take more mental energy than reverting to “quick fix” bad habits. She recommended alternatives like going for a walk, calling a friend, listening to music or doing deep meditative breathing as positive replacements.
Also, identify the costs and benefits of maintaining the bad habit.
Making a plan, finding a support group and identifying people, places and things that support changing the habit, as well as identifying those who help perpetuate the habit, were other recommendations.
Heck said it is essential to set realistic goals and to have cues to remind yourself that you are trying to change a habit.
For example, if you get back pain from slouching when driving, use each stoplight as a cue to check your posture; over time, new behaviors become second nature.
Committing to change is half of the battle, said Owens.
“A person’s willingness and motivation are critical factors for success,” she said.