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Many of us have habits that we would like to remove from our behaviour repertoire, because they may not be healthy, productive or because they lead to negative consequences. Habits include:
• Drug or alcohol use
• Gambling – such as pokie machines, casino use, or betting.
• Shopaholic behaviour
• Internet and mobile phone addiction
• Gaming addictions
Often these habits have been ingrained – we took them up some time in our past as a way of coping perhaps in times of stress, or because they give us pleasure. Often times the habit continues because of a perception that there aren't other alternatives that are enjoyable, or other options are not present to help us cope. Therefore, we may continue to hold tight to these behaviours that provide comfort, a sense of control or that have become so ritualistic in our lives we can’t imagine not having them.
A habit may not be problematic. For example, some people may only smoke 3 or 4 cigarettes daily, or they may go to the casino every few months without staying there until they suffer adverse financial consequences. So, when does a behaviour become an unwanted habit?
• When there are serious risks to one’s health – such as lung disease from smoking, or norbid obesity from over-eating
• When there are serious consequences to one’s social life – for example aggressive behaviour due to drug use, anti-social behaviour due to spending too much time online. Also, if children or family have needs neglected because you are spending to much time in the habitual behaviour
• When there are serious consequences to one’s financial control – for example not being able to pay the bills due to spending too much money gambling or over-shopping
Inherent in the problems of addictive behaviour or having unwanted habits is a self-justification: “I can stop gambling any time I like” or “I don’t have lung cancer – smoking is not a problem for me”.
There may be truth in this reasoning – there are people who can indulge in a behaviour but are in control with regard to having reasonable health, social life and with no unwanted financial repercussions.
So, when does a habit become problematic – what 'line' is crossed? There is definitely a subjective ‘grey area’, and often that is determined by how much the person with the habit and their families feel personally affected. For example, some people and their families can tolerate a few drinks every night, but the overall positives in their lives are still perceived to be present to the degree that the negatives are tolerated. Another example is the gambler, who is happy enough just to be able to pay the bills, the rent and perhaps because they live alone, or don’t have to answer to any one else.
However, suppose you do have a habit that you want to kick. However, as is inherent in the very definition of what a habit is, it feels like you can’t do without it, that it has control of you, or even though you realise it has to go, you enjoy it, and you feel drawn to it.
• Are you ready to give up the habit? It may be that you don’t feel it has such a negative hold on your life. You might feel it does but due to other stressors, it might not be the right time to give it up Or if you are not sure if it is a problem, look at the cost: benefit ratio, such as discussed above
• It may work for you to gradually let go of the hold of your habit – such as spending three quarters of what you usually do gambling, and then a half. You then write a plan of how, over time you will slowly relinquish the need to hold on to the habit.
• You will need to decide whether you are going to completely give up the habit, or retain it to some degree that is not damaging: for example will you still intend to gamble once per week, and walk away after putting in so much money? You need to be really honest with yourself and ask yourself if you are able to walk away.
• Other people can be more successful giving up another habit instantly and ‘overnight’ – especially if still engaging in a behaviour to any degree provides such a degree of tantalising comfort or positive reinforcement for you. You may be one of those people where ‘more is never enough’, and giving up 'cold turkey' may be preferable.
• Write down all the positives that you would enjoy if you did not have the habit – such as having money to spend on a holiday at the end of the year, better relationships with people important to you. Does the habit itself have positives for you? Does it make you feel better short-term, and long-term?
• Write down the negatives of the behaviour, for example increased risk of lung cancer, being too broke to pay the bills (with gambling), a deleterious effect on your social life (with online addictions, for example).
• To write down your strengths, the weapons you have to fight your habit. These could be network of family and friends, a support group. It could be pharmaceutical aid such as nicotine patches. It could be having a repertoire of other behaviours that bring you pleasure that you can use to replace the habit. It could be an awareness and a tapping into positive personal qualities you have - such as a sense of humour - this is another tool, because instead of indulging a habit, you may gain pleasure from a funny movie or show.
Use knowledge of your triggers to say avoid situations you know will lead to you indulging in the habit you want to give up. For example if you overspend at shops, only take so much cash with you – you may even feel it is necessary to get rid of your credit card.
• If you do lapse, remember this is not a failure. It is almost a rite of passage for anyone giving up something they habitually do. Try to identify what triggered you to relapse, and get back on the horse. Never give up. Remind yourself of your successes, and just how well you are doing even to have decided to give up. Keep up your supports, and positive alternatives. Give yourself a star in a special diary for every successful day you have quit the habit.
If you do continue to have difficulty, you may want to seek professional assistance, such as a psychologist or counsellor.