Using Mindfulness to Break Bad Habits

Humans are creatures of habit.  Whether we are aware of it or not, we operate in an habitual nature.  For example, everyone has their own routines.  If you were to review yours, most likely it has not changed much when it comes to things like brushing your teeth at certain times or when you take a shower in the day.  This is because you have formed a habit for when you do these activities over a period of time.  But not every habit we create is a positive one.  For example, eating certain foods, smoking, or aggressive driving are unsafe habits. And just like we learn to adjust our habits as our life circumstances change, changing habits that are not in our best interest must also change.  However, as many already know, it is easier said than done.  This is where mindfulness meditation and general mindfulness can be a powerful ally in changing a habit that is hard to break.

In order to understand how mindfulness can help, it is first important to understand how habits are formed.  Habits are formed when new behaviors become automatic.  For example, if you go to eat a piece of cake after dinner every night, eventually it becomes habitual. By the same measure, if you decide to go to the gym every day after work at 5pm, you form a habit of exercising regularly after work.  Old habits are hard to break, and new habits can be hard to form.  The reason for this is because the habits we form are etched into our brain.  Through repetition, however, new habits can be formed, and this is where mindfulness is useful.

Mindfulness is the act of being aware of a current state of being at any given moment.  When forming new habits, it is imperative that the person be aware of their actions and make them intentional.  While things like setting reminders to do a task related to a new habit are helpful, they are not useful if we don’t act on them.  In mindfulness meditation, we visualize ourselves doing what it is we want to achieve.  Seeing, is after all, achieving, according to Psychology Today. In mindfulness practice for habit breaking, you will imagine what it looks, feels, smells, and possibly tastes like as you work towards that habit.  This keen awareness is the key to breaking habits and starting new ones.  By being aware of what is going on in the moment in line with the visceral sensations of achieving that new habit, we are more likely to actually take the concrete steps to achieve the new habit or break the old one.  In other words, the practice of mindfulness meditation and awareness keeps us in the moment of our day to day lives so we are consciously aware of the decisions we make and their impact.

Scientifically speaking, meditation helps to rewire your brain.  This is because you are etching out one set of actions of habit in your brain and replacing it with another.  Let’s look at a real world example of how you can use mindfulness and mindfulness meditation to help with habits.

Perhaps you want to eat a snack every day at 3pm.  You need to be aware of what is preventing you from doing this in the first place.  That includes any thoughts or feelings that arise as 3pm nears.  You can explore this, both during a meditation session and in the moment, by being aware of what is going on.  Maybe at 3pm, you come out of a meeting with your boss daily and are too stressed to eat.  Being mindful, you will recognize this, and the feelings associated with it.  Now that you are aware of the trigger to not snack, you can reframe the situation differently.  In this example, you may tell yourself that a snack may help provide your body with nourishment and not eating only gives the bad habit more power than it deserves.  Gradually over time, this new awareness will help you stop, reflect, and replace the old habit with a new one.  The key is time.  There may be ups and downs along the way.  But, do not beat yourself up.  Stay mindful of how you are progressing, and before you realize it, you will have formed a new habit.