How to change a habit

Good or bad, we all have them. Here's how to change an alcohol or drug habit, form new, healthier habits and handle cravings.

We all have habits

It’s part of being human.

Habits are actions which have been repeated so many times that they feel ‘automatic’. Because they do not require conscious mental effort, they free up space in our minds to focus on other important tasks.

Habits can be helpful and unhelpful.

Habits can be a problem when they are linked to behaviours which have a detrimental effect.  

How habits start

Habits form by us repeating an action over and over again which then can become automatically triggered by things that we associate with the action e.g. automatically putting on a seatbelt after we get into a car.

Habits can start without us meaning to develop them. Some habits can start because we feel like they will help us in some way. 

For some of us, going to the gym is associated with feeling energised. For others, having an alcoholic drink with others is associated with feeling relaxed or more confident socially. Or maybe smoking cannabis with friends is associated with feeling less lonely or bored.

Because we feel some positive effects when doing these things, we do them again - and again. 

Through repetition habits then form which link what we are doing (the behaviour) with anything we associate with the behaviour (how we feel, the setting, sounds, taste, smells etc). This means that over time any of the associations can automatically trigger the behaviour.

How habits can get out of control

The more often the behaviour is repeated and over a longer time period, the stronger the habit becomes.

For alcohol and drug use - as well as the chemical effects of the substance itself, our brains start to expect the associated positive effects we get from the habitual behaviour 

If we don’t do the thing our brain is expecting us to do we can get strong urges, sometimes known as cravings.

 It can start to feel like our habit has taken control of our behaviour. 

Feeling as if you have less ability to control how you feel and behave might be because you have become physically dependent on the substance. In this case using drugs or alcohol may be driven by a need to reduce physical withdrawal symptoms, rather than just habitual behaviour.

There are important differences in changing behaviour linked to physical dependence on drugs and alcohol, compared to behaviour that has become a habit through repetition alone. 

If you're dependent on alcohol or drugs...

or you think you may be, it’s important not to stop suddenly as this can be dangerous. It’s important to seek professional support to cut down or stop using safely. Contact one of our local services, chat to us online or speak to your GP. 

How to break a habit

If you stop a habit suddenly your brain will miss the positive effects it used to give you and you may start to get cravings.

That’s why it’s important to replace old habits with new ones.

Developing new habits will help to distract you from cravings. It will also start to retrain your brain so that your old habit no longer has such a strong grip on you.

Understand your feelings

For many people, habits can be a coping mechanism for uncomfortable, challenging or traumatic feelings. 

Try thinking about what feelings the habit was helping you to cope with. Understanding these triggers will better equip you to find alternatives. It might be that you need something else to distract your mind, or you could need support from a friend or professional. 

Finding new ways to cope with old feelings will make it easier to leave your habit behind.

It’s all about taking small steps and finding what works best for you.

Other things to try

It may help to:

  • Keep a diary - this will help you understand your habit and the feelings that trigger it
  • Avoid triggers - try to stay away from people, places and situations that could trigger your habit
  • Look after yourself - eat well, sleep lots and spend time with people you trust 
  • Stop for a short while - if you’re not ready to drop a habit for good, you could just see how it feels to give it up for a bit
  • Set yourself some fresh goals - give yourself something to work towards to help motivate you to stay on track