Get a Handle on Bad Habits
Bad habits can be irritating, to ourselves or others, but they can also be stressful. Many bad habits undermine physical health, emotional well-being, and mental acuity. To begin building a body capable of managing the stresses that life necessarily entails, get control over your bad habits; they are the stresses that aren't necessary.
Habits are stressful in three ways:
Direct. Many habits have a direct, negative effect on the body. Smoking, drinking too much alcohol, and taking certain drugs (legal or illegal) can introduce toxic or harmful substances into the body that can compromise the body's ability to function properly, lead to addiction, even encourage disease processes.
Habits can also directly impact our emotional or mental functioning. Becoming intoxicated, overly distracted, or otherwise impaired can make one more prone to accidents, rages, and mistakes. When your body and/or mind are directly affected in a negative way by a habit, your stress level will increase.
Indirect. Habits also have an indirect effect on your stress level. Knowing you drank too much, stayed up too late, and ate too much the night before can add to your frustration and low self-esteem in your work life the next morning. Your stress will be higher than it would have been had you not spent the evening before being controlled by a bad habit.
Maybe someone will comment on your ragged nails and make you feel embarrassed and angry at yourself. Later, you might snap at a friend because you feel bad about your lack of control. Habits can make us feel helpless when they control us, causing stress because we worry about our lack of self-control, the effect our habit may have on others, and the deleterious health effects of whatever the habit may be.
Combination. Some habits can have both direct and indirect negative effects. Probably most bad habits fall into this category. After all, anything that affects us negatively and that we could have controlled but didn't will tend to undermine our emotional state and self-esteem, leading to related stress. Compulsive overeating, for example, is dangerous to the body because the body isn't designed to take in huge amounts of food at one time. It can also create negative emotional states such as frustration, depression, and anxiety.
Even less dramatic bad habits like habitual messiness can have a combination effect. If you can never keep things clean, for example, you might suffer frustration over never being able to find things, financial loss because of disorganization, and low self-esteem because it seems like everyone else is able to keep things neat but you (which, of course, is not true).
Attitudes and personality determine behavior, but behavior can also determine attitude and personality. Rather than succumbing to the notion that you'll always smoke, overeat, or interrupt people because “that's just the way you are,” pretend for a single day that you aren't “that way.” Pretend you don't have that bad habit. It may be easier than you think, and soon you may find that you can be that person all the time — that that person was you all along!
Some habits, of course, are good. If you always clean up your own messes, have a habit of being polite, or are devoted to your daily bowl of fresh salad, you probably already know that those habits are keepers.
Some habits are neutral. For example, you always eat a favorite cereal, or you prefer a certain gas station, or you have a habit of humming while you wash the dishes. If they don't bother anybody, no problem.
Other habits aren't so good. What makes a habit bad? A bad habit is a habit that makes you less healthy or less happy. Even if you
You may feel helpless in the throes of your nail biting, hair twirling, chip munching, TV watching, or procrastinating habit. But as helpless as you feel, rest assured that it's a habit, and habits can be broken. How do you break a bad habit? First, determine if your habit really is bad. If, for example, you drink a cup of coffee every morning because you really enjoy it, that's probably fine. If your habit controls you — if you gulp down java by the quart all day long and feel panicky or nonfunctional without it, you've got a bad habit.
Once you've determined that you do, indeed, have a bad habit (most of us have several), the next step is to identify your bad habit and make sure you understand, logically, why it is, indeed, a bad habit. Once you've recognized and admitted your habit, you can work on getting control over it. Let's look at some common bad habits and the ways they can cause you stress. See where you recognize yourself.
When your bad habit is also an addiction, typical habit-control methods may not work. Addictions such as to cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, gambling, or even sex are more complex than simple habits and can be life threatening or life destroying. When your body chemistry or a complex psychological process is involved, you may need additional help, whether it be a nicotine patch, counseling, or a stint in rehab. Talk to your health care provider or counselor about the best way to handle your addiction.
Personal habits are those things you do that probably drive somebody crazy, or that you never do in front of other people because you know it would drive them crazy. Personal habits include nail biting, hair twirling, knuckle cracking, spitting, whining, habitual coughing or throat clearing, habitual cursing, and gum snapping. You can probably think of plenty of others. A personal habit is worth getting rid of if it annoys you, annoys people around you (at least those that you'd rather not annoy), makes you feel bad about yourself, or is bad for you.
Drugs: The Legal Ones and the Other Ones
Drugs can be important tools for maintaining or regaining good health. When used for purposes other than for correcting a health problem, however, drugs can cause imbalances in the body that contribute to health problems. There are people who use legal drugs, which include alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and prescription drugs. And there are people who use the illegal ones. People use illegal (and sometimes legal) drugs because these drugs make them feel good, increase their energy, or have a calming effect.
Some substances used occasionally in moderation (such as alcohol or caffeine) probably aren't harmful for some people, but other drugs — especially “hard” drugs such as cocaine and heroin — can be very harmful to the body. A glass of wine with dinner is probably fine for someone who isn't addicted to alcohol, isn't prone to alcohol addiction, and really enjoys it. One marijuana cigarette could be dangerous to somebody with asthma and has immediate short-term stressful physical effects on anyone (even if you think it makes you feel relaxed). Illegal drugs pose multiple risks, not the least of which is the potential for getting in trouble with the law. If you want to talk stressful, consider a jail term.
But any substance that artificially alters your mental state taken too often or in large amounts will, at best, keep you from dealing with your stress and, at worst, add significantly to your stress. Legal though it is, few would dispute the dangers of overconsumption of alcohol. Sure, it's easier when you're feeling stressed or don't like your life the way it is to use a drug to help distract you or to help you forget about how things are.
But working to improve the way things are — to manage your stress rather than bury it under a temporary euphoria — is a lot more productive in the long term. If you use mind-altering substances to avoid the issues in your life, it's time to rethink this destructive habit.
Eating too much weighs down your body and makes you feel sluggish. Overeating at night keeps your digestive system working overtime and can disturb your quality of sleep. Eating too many simple sugars can raise your insulin level and promote bingeing, which perpetuates the cycle of overeating. Eating too much can also lead to overweight; unfortunately, it has already done so in over half the population of the United States.
Eating disorders are the culprit in many cases. Well-known disorders such as bulimia and anorexia, as well as lesser-known but quite common disorders such as binge eating disorder, often have complex psychological causes as well as physical causes. Please seek help from your doctor, counselor, or other health care professional if you think you or someone you love has an eating disorder. Left untreated, both bulimia and anorexia can be fatal.
In some cases, overeating is simply a habit, encouraged by a culture that is obsessed with food (and also with being thin, ironically). Eating a lot of food that tastes good is enjoyable. Good food is everywhere and often doesn't cost much. Watch television for an hour and you'll see many commercials for mouth-watering food. Plus, when life is stressful, it's easy to convince yourself that you deserve that candy bar or that double pepperoni pizza at midnight. You work hard. Don't you deserve a treat?
In the next chapter, you'll learn more about eating right to maximize your stress management potential. But for now, if your overeating is a bad habit, you can help to retrain yourself using the stress management strategies for breaking bad habits at the end of this section.
Working hard may seem to you more like a necessity than a habit, and for some people, that's certainly the case. For others, however, overworking really is a habit. Maybe you work to forget that you don't have a social life. Maybe you work because you are obsessed with getting that promotion. Maybe your coworkers and work life have become a surrogate family that you really depend on for your sense of well-being — which may be just fine, up to a point, as long as you aren't depending on your coworkers to provide something they aren't going to provide.
Whatever the case, if you are in the habit of overworking and your work is impinging on your life — that is, you feel you have no personal time, no time to just relax without thinking about work, no privacy because people from work call you at home at all hours — then overworking has become a habit; one, however, that you can gradually reshape.
Too Much Media
Digital cable, satellite dishes, premium movie channels, video rental stores on every corner, radio on the Internet, CD players in the car, high-speed Internet connections, DVD — ours is a technological world, and it can be pretty seductive. Some people can't resist the pleasure of watching a movie on DVD on their laptop while curled in bed, or having the highest of high-end stereo equipment, or exploring the world through the Internet for hours at a time. If you have a media habit, you certainly aren't alone.
According to statistics compiled by a group called TV Free America, 98 percent of American households have at least one television, and 40 percent have three or more TVs! The television is turned on in the average American home for seven hours and 12 minutes every day, and 66 percent of Americans eat dinner while watching TV. Eighty-four percent of us have at least one VCR, and we rent 6 million videos every day, compared to 3 million public library items checked out. Almost half of Americans (49 percent) admit they watch too much TV.
According to the A. C. Nielsen Co. (1998), the average American watches three hours and 46 minutes of television every day, which comes to a total of more than 52 days of nonstop TV each year. By age 65, the average American will have spent a total of nine years watching television!
Like anything else, technology and media are fine … in moderation. But also, like anything else, too much of a good thing soon becomes a bad thing. If your media habit is taking up more than its fair share of your time and you are sacrificing other, equally important or more important parts of your life because of your media fixation, then it's a
Consider the daily news. People depend on the news to be informed about world events, to hear the next day's weather, and to keep up on local happenings. But obsessive news watching can result in preoccupation with events far removed from your own life, anxiety about the state of the world (justified in many cases, sure, when you can do something about it, but not worth lying awake at night), even depression as a result of focusing too much on all the bad things that happen. Unfortunately, news often focuses on tragedy. Seek balance in your media habits. Set boundaries. Don't let Internet surfing or channel surfing keep you from sleeping enough, eating right, or getting up out of your chair and getting some exercise.
The Noise Habit
The noise habit is related to the media habit. If you always have to have the television or the radio on, whether you are watching it or not, if you can't get yourself to work or do your homework without music or television in the background (or foreground), if you've tried to meditate but absolutely can't stand the silence, if you always fall asleep to the television or to music, then you've probably got a noise habit.
Silence can be not only therapeutic but also remarkably energizing. Finding a space each day for silence and stillness allows the body to recharge. There is nothing wrong with noise, but constant noise keeps your mind from focusing completely on anything and encourages fragmentation. You may be able to get your work or your homework done in front of the television, but it will probably take you longer and you probably won't do as good a job.
Take a vow of silence. Choosing not to speak for an entire day, or just an hour. The experience can be constraining in some ways but liberating in others. Let yourself appreciate the beauty of silence, and teach yourself how to listen well. Taking a vow of silence can be a spiritual discipline, but it also happens to be an excellent technique for slowing down the thought process and focusing on the sounds of the world that aren't being made by you.
People who live alone often like to keep noise in the background. Noise can temporarily mask your loneliness or nervousness. It can calm an anxious mind or distract a troubled mind. Constant noise can provide a welcome relief from oneself, but if it is compromising your ability to think and perform as well as you could, if it is keeping you from confronting your stress and yourself, then it's time to make some space for silence in your life. Too much noise is stressful on the body and the mind. Give yourself a break and let yourself experience silence at least once each day for at least ten minutes. Don't be afraid of silence. To quote Martha Stewart, “It's a good thing.”
One person's cake is another person's trip to the mall. Some people get a fantastic high from shopping, and shopping can, indeed, become a bad habit (and even an addiction). If you head to the store when you are feeling frustrated, depressed, anxious, or worried about something — even not having enough money to pay the bills — and if the feeling you get from buying a bunch of stuff really makes you feel better, you can be assured you are shopping for the wrong reason.
We are a consumeristic society, and we are encouraged from many different directions to buy things. But we should buy things only for good reasons, such as because we need something or really want something. Just wanting to buy “anything at all,” no matter what it is, is not a good reason to go shopping. You work hard for the money you make. Is the time you put in worth the pile of junk you just brought home, junk that you probably won't ever wear, use, eat, or look at again?
The shopping habit can be redirected, just like the overeating habit can be redirected. If you think you shop for the wrong reasons (it's a very common habit), work on finding something else fun to do whenever you feel the shopping impulse. How about something that doesn't cost any money? It may not feel as good at first, but once you get out of the habit, you'll wonder how you could possibly have spent so much money on so much junk. To quote a bumper sticker I saw the other day: “The best things in life aren't things.”
Who doesn't procrastinate once in a while? But if you can't ever get anything done on time, no matter how much preparation time you have, no matter how easy the task, then you probably have a procrastination habit. Some procrastination stems from a basic lack of organization, in the home, personal life, office, or wherever. But for some, procrastination exists as a habit all on its own. It doesn't matter how organized you are. You still have a mental block about getting anywhere or doing anything on time.
Procrastination is all in your head — but that means it has a lot of power! When the thought of doing something is so overwhelming that it keeps you from taking action, one way to overcome the paralysis is to meditate on the thought itself. Sit quietly, get comfortable, and focus on your dread. Whatever it is, focus on it. Immerse yourself in the dread. Then, imagine enclosing the dread in a bubble. There it is, just a thought, made of nothing. Watch it float away. What's left? A thing that simply needs doing. So, do it!
Chronic procrastinators sometimes despair that procrastination is an ingrained part of their personality and impossible to change. Not true! Procrastination, too, is a habit, and it can be reshaped just like anything else. It will certainly take some doing. Although breaking any bad habit is challenging, it certainly is not impossible.
Just remember, you don't have to stop procrastinating all at once. Choose areas to tackle first, like getting to work on time. How can you reorganize your morning and inspire yourself to get up in the first place? Maybe paying bills on time will be your first focus, or retraining yourself to pick up clutter or wash every dish before bedtime. You can do it!