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How to break a habit

We all have habits. It’s a normal part of being human.

But habits can be a problem when they start to control us rather than the other way round.

How habits start

Habits start because they help us in some way.

For some of us going to the gym gives us a pleasant buzz.

For others having a drink helps us to relax or feel more confident socially.

Maybe smoking cannabis with friends helps you feel less lonely or bored.

Because we get some benefit from doing these things, we do them again - and again.

How they get out of control

The longer habits go on, the stronger they become.

Our brains start to expect the happy hormones we get from our habit, whether it’s exercising, having a drink or using drugs.

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

It can start to feel like our habit has got control of us instead of the other way round.

How to break a habit

If you stop a habit suddenly your brain will miss the happy hormones it used to give you and you’ll 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

Start by thinking about what feelings the old habit used to help you with.

Do you drink to cope with boredom? Maybe it’s time to take up a new interest.

Did drugs help you block out the grief of losing a relationship or a loved one? Perhaps some counselling would help.

Finding new ways to cope with old feelings will help you to leave your unhelpful 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 (see Triggers: how to avoid them)
  • Look after yourself - eat well, sleep lots and spend time with people you trust (see some other tips for looking after yourself)
  • 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