Break a bad habit with Hypnotherapy
Do you want to break a bad habit? Well, here’s a new notes on habits first to help you understand how you have arrived here…
Break a bad habit: What is a habit?
A habit is an automated mental and behavioural activity that enables you to shape aspects of your daily life. Habits give you structure, stability and security so that you can focus on the more important tasks. Without habits, you would need to regenerate creative and complex thinking into every part of your day. Compare the current effort needed to type on your “qwerty” keyboard with typing on one that has been randomly rearranged. Typing up a project on the latter would be a frustrating process until you have learned the new keyboard format and formed the new habits needed to type proficiently again.
Habit formation is a mind-management tool. When you form a habit, it enables you to save mental energy and to take short cuts on certain activities. Automated behaviour demands less effort from you than activities that demand your complex and creative thinking. Habits thus act as one of the brain’s power-saving mechanisms, “chunking” the routine behaviours to free up energy for those other “essential” tasks.
Habits are important to understand because they contain specific aspects of your thinking, your emotions and your beliefs, which in turn, can also become automated. In many ways, a habit is a reflection of your direction, who you are, and what you believe. When you achieve your goals, it is a result of your well-nurtured habits.
Habits are also important to understand because when a habit has been formed, it creates a huge influence in how you expect to behave, think and feel. This can be ideal if the habit is serving a good purpose. If the habit is (or has become) a bad habit however, then it can have a negative impact on many aspects of your life, how you feel about yourself and your confidence. Ingrained bad habits will conflict with what you want to do, displacing your rationality and what you might consider to be your “free will”.
Habits are more challenging to adjust when you are experiencing a number of major lifestyle changes e.g. a change of job, a relationship break-up, a bereavement etc. When you are under pressure, letting go of the old habits and establishing new ones can be frustrating. It can seem easier to continue with the bad habit particularly when you are under stress, even though you can appreciate that it’s not working for you and that it’s conflicting with underlying beliefs (cognitive dissonance).
If you want to break a bad habit, layers of repetition that you have formed in one direction will now need to be undone and replaced with a new positive process. If this habit has taken many years to develop, it can be particularly challenging to work against the tide of expectation, break down the bad habit and install a new self-affirming behaviour. When you want to break a bad habit it’s not surprising that you get stuck in a recurrent loop.
Have you reached a dead end with your bad habit? Then maybe professional help would benefit you.
Break a bad habit: how are habits formed?
Approximately 40% of your daily behaviour is determined, not by conscious decisions, but by habit. Have you ever tried to be conscious of some of your basic routines? Take your morning routine for example. It can be exhausting analysing every action, the methods available, the pros and cons, assessing and evaluating if the behaviour was good enough etc. Like most people, you slip into subconscious mode and prepare for your day ahead.
Let’s consider one part in that morning routine, like brushing your teeth. For many of you, rewinding back to the day when it all started will have connections with your parents or relevant authority figures. The cue (or trigger for the behaviour) will have originated from a suggestion, demonstration or assistance from them. The reward or perceived benefit is the reason for your brain to store the pattern of behaviour. This may have come from your parent’s praise, your own reward for “looking very grown up” imitating what they did, enjoying the feel of the toothbrush on your gums or taste of the toothpaste etc. With the repetition of daily teeth brushing, the routine or habit was created.
Now let’s consider another habit that is not so fundamental for the general population, but is essential to those who do it – the habit of nail biting (onychophagia). Again, the cue for nail biting can derive from observation and imitation of an authority figure or a peer. For some, having the irritation of an uneven nail that was torn or split was the cue. Biting off the torn nail reduced the irritation and became the reward. And with the repetition of biting more nails, the habit was formed.
As a nail biting habit becomes ingrained over a period of years, it integrates additional needs (emotions and beliefs) and incorporates more rewards. This intensifies its effect on the individual, as if it’s part of your identity. By now, the nail biting habit has numerous triggers and is taking over many situations in your lifestyle. You may even be biting your nails in your sleep.
Some of the underlying needs that can develop over the years for nail biting can include personal grooming, perfectionism, problem-solving, achievement, emotional comfort (from stress, anxiety etc.), alleviation of boredom, control, self punishment, time-efficiency (using your teeth is easier than fetching nail clippers), defiance, loneliness, a thumb-sucking replacement, hunger satisfaction, appetite suppression etc.
With such a complicated needs-reward pathway, wanting to break a bad habit like nail biting as an adult can be a challenging process.
Habits, compulsions and addictions
What are the similarities and differences between habits, compulsions and addictions?
As discussed, habits (whether good or bad) are routine behaviours that are consolidated through repetition. You may or may not notice that you are performing the behaviour, but when it is brought to your conscious attention, you can usually temporarily stop the behaviour. With time, the original reward that integrated the good habit during formation can separate from the current behaviour. Hence you can be in possession of habits that are no longer useful. If it conflicts with current needs, the good habit has become a bad habit.
Compulsions are repetitive behaviours driven by anxiety and are often defined within obsessive compulsive disorder. There is hope of a reward, but once the compulsion is performed, there is no relief from the underlying anxiety connected to it.
Whilst there is pressure to act with both habits and compulsions, the pressure to perform the compulsion is usually more intense than with habits, and will continue even if consciously noticed. The “good habit” of washing your hands before eating has a definite sense of completion. With compulsive hand washing however, the ritual can have a specific sequence, is time-consuming and anxiety continues even after completion of the hand washing routine.
Addictions involve biological connections with substances that are consumed or used, such as drugs, alcohol and nicotine. There are many compulsions that are considered to be addictions, where no substances are consumed or used e.g. when gambling or shopping as a “shopaholic”. Addictive behaviour is characterised by intense cravings, loss of control and behavioural persistence often to the neglect on one’s health, relationships and work. An addiction can be referred to as a disease with many triggers because of the brain’s involvement in the development of the condition.
Addictions start as habits but the behaviour can remain as habits e.g. when habitually drinking alcohol every evening. As the habitual patterns intensify however, they can become compulsive and addictive. What defines it can depend on the individual and your motivation, your negative emotions connected to the behaviour (e.g. to manage anxiety) and its affect that these patterns are having on your neurology. All behavioural patterns can be difficult to stop.
Generally, an OCD compulsion has does not have any pleasurable attachments; it originates from a need to relieve an obsessive urge. Addictive behaviour starts with the desire for pleasure, but there is usually a point where enjoyment is lost and you are just seeking relief from the urge to continue the behaviour. This is intensified during withdrawal and can look like an OCD compulsion at this stage because the pleasure has ceased.
Another major distinction is related to the awareness of reality. Those with an OCD compulsion are aware that the obsession is not real and you are distressed by the need to carry out the irrational compulsion. People with addictions however are in a state of denial and are disconnected from the long term consequences of your actions. Instead you are in pursuit of short term gratification, ignoring how your behaviour might be linked to an underlying problem.
Why is this distinction between habits, compulsions and addictions important? From the above discussion, it is evident that these types of repetitive behaviour can overlap in one person, yet can remain distinct in another person. Consider an example like exercising every day. Is this someone who is passionate about their hobby, health and fitness, and wants to maintain a good exercise habit? Or has the exercise routine become more of a bad habit or a compulsion, masking an underlying health anxiety or insecurity about their physique? If the individual is spending hours each evening at the gym and neglecting family relationships, does this mean that it has become an addiction? It would need a closer analysis to define it accurately.
When you want to break a bad habit, understanding the category of your automated behaviour (habit, compulsion or addiction) can help you appreciate what may be necessary in your treatment plan. Treatment to quit smoking for example can involve treatment for the addiction and habit to convert the smoker into a non-smoker.
Has your repetitive behaviour been diagnosed? Many clients arrive with deeply entrenched bad habits that have become compulsions. It’s often necessary to treat the connecting beliefs and emotions to release the subconscious mind’s need to maintain the bad habit.
Break a bad habit: Most common bad habits
Bad habits come in all shapes and sizes and varying degrees of severity. Placing them into “categories” inevitably involves a degree of overlap depending on how you view the habit e.g. is watching too much television a bad health habit, or a procrastination habit, or both? Certain bad habits can also vary in the specific situation e.g. procrastination can be determined by what distractions are available at the time such as access to television, your phone, snacks etc. and whether you are at home or at work.
And not all bad habits are behavioural; some bad habits can be identified as cognitive and emotional e.g. when dwelling on lost opportunities or worrying about the future.
Bad habits that increase your weight
It’s not just identifying where the calories exist; it’s important to make the connection with how you approach your eating and drinking patterns. Bad habits that increase your weight can include:
- Overeating, binge eating
- Drinking high calorie drinks
- Emotional eating (aka comfort eating)
- Snacking late in the evening
- Eating a diet that is high in salt, sugar and fat
- Eating too quickly
- Always needing to finish everything on your plate
- Not eating consciously (snacking whilst watching television),
- Not planning your meals
Bad habits that can harm your health
Ignore some of these bad habits and they can apparently take years off your life. Bad habits that can harm your health include:
- Many of the habits that increase your weight (see above)
- Drinking too much caffeine
- Being inactive (lack of exercise)
- Slouching, crossing your legs
- Not having enough or quality sleep
- Habitual drinking and binge drinking (alcohol)
- Using phones and other devices late at night
- Taking drugs
- Overmedicating (pain killers, sedatives etc.)
- Ignoring how stress is affecting you
- Skipping medical appointments
- Not drinking enough fluids
- Not flossing
- Wearing high heels
- Skipping meals
- Ignoring the value of your health
- Living beyond your financial means
Bad habits that damage your productivity
Being productive can involve a number of issues including effective time management skills and balancing obligations with work and home life. Activities that can be defined as “time out” or escapism to some can be a time-wasting activity (procrastination) to others. In the balance of managing stress however, it is important to have some relaxation time; too much “chill” time and it can add to your stress. Bad habits that can damage your productivity include:
- Watching too much television
- Overusing your phone
- Playing video games
- Over-using social media
- Saying yes to everything
- Lack of delegation
- Being indecisive
- Not having breaks
- Poor punctuality
- Watching too much porn
- Sleeping in
- Leaving keys/wallet/purse in random places
- Leaving things until last minute
Bad habits that hurt your finances
Some people say that money isn’t everything, but it’s important to achieve a level of financial comfort where you don’t have a daily financial struggle just to survive. Ignore poor financial management habits and it can lead to health problems. Bad habits that can hurt your finances include:
- Emotional impulsive shopping
- Ignoring credit card limits
- Not economising/budgeting
- Stealing (kleptomania)
- Not saving money
- Neglecting your bills/expenses
- Not saving towards a pension
- Spending to compete with others
- Hoping to get lucky
Personal bad habits
Personal grooming patterns can become destructive habits, even though they start with the intention of comforting the individual. Some of these behaviours can annoy, offend and disgust others when done in public. Personal bad habits can include:
- Nail biting or biting/chewing on other objects
- Thumb sucking
- Twiddling hair
- Hair pulling (Trichotillomania)
- Biting your lips, biting the inside of your cheeks
- Picking your skin, scabs or spots
- Clearing your throat excessively
- Grinding your teeth (bruxism), clenching your jaw
- Not washing your hands
- Picking you nose
- Cracking knuckles
- Excessive scratching
- Over grooming
- Using your phone when driving
Bad habits that harm your relationships
Communication, trust and respect are just some of the common relationship goals. Certain bad habits can hinder those goals from flourishing. Bad habits that can harm your relationship include:
- Trying to change your partner
- Provoking jealous reactions from your partner
- Being too critical
- Staying in toxic relationships
- Being abusive
- Not standing up to abuse
- Being aggressive
- Not acknowledging your partner
- Not actively listening
- Competing with your partner
- Keeping score
- Failing to respect each other’s space
- Engaging in passive-aggression
- Avoiding conflict
Bad habits that harm your emotional wellbeing
It can be a slow process, but giving daily attention to some of the behavioural patterns that are contributing to your low mood can gradually pull you out of your unhappiness. Bad habits that can harm you emotional well-being include:
- Being self critical
- Associating with negative people
- Being unassertiveness
- Fearing failure
- Struggling to take criticism or praise
- Failing to take responsibility
- Isolating yourself from others
- Comparing yourself to others
- Worrying excessively
- Not making time for yourself
- Self hatred
- Not practising meditation/mindfulness/self hypnosis
- Obsessing about things out of your control
- Undervaluing self awareness
- Not using correct breathing techniques
- Failing to use affirmations
- Dwelling on your negative past
- Not wanting to break a bad habit
The impact of ignoring bad habits in a certain category can obviously have a direct impact on that part of your life e.g. obesity can be the result of ignoring bad habits that contribute to weight gain.
Other negative effects include anxiety, depression, stress, sleep problems, panic attacks, fatigue etc. Long terms bad habits can also contribute to family problems, dental problems, social problems and unemployment.
How are bad habits justified?
Bad habits start as “good” habits. At the time of their formation, you make the connection with a perceived benefit (or reward) regardless of how negative it may seem to others. What you connect with can be based on the resources that are conveniently available at that time.
Young children can develop habits such as twiddling hair, nail biting, thumb sucking and skin picking to manage stress, to comfort insecurity and loneliness, and calm anxiety. When there is a lack of activity for children, the bad habit can combine with the management of these negative emotions to become a new daydreaming “activity” to feel comforted and ease boredom.
Depending on your family situation and your interaction with adult authority figures, the developing bad habits can be reinforced to balance emotions from negative conditioning e.g. where there is control, manipulation, abuse or neglect from adults (or other school children). By employing the habit, the child will seek to gain attention or regain a level of emotional control. Some habits can be used as self-punishment (self-harm) to divert feelings of guilt, shame or worthlessness.
Whilst the bad habit of comfort eating can develop from young childhood, teenage curiosity can be a period where bad habits are connected to other substances. Alcohol, tobacco and recreational drugs are common ways that young people self-medicate to escape problems and manage stress and social anxiety.
Beyond the use of substances, emotional and behavioural bad habits can also become ritualised at this young age to manage anxiety, a fear of failure, guilt and shame. Negative self-talk, obsessive compulsive behaviour (e.g. gaming or gambling) and procrastination (e.g. watching television, using social media) are common bad habits that leak into adulthood, often damaging efficiency, self confidence and self esteem.
The needs that justify bad habits can be complex. They start as a functional good habit. With repetition, changing needs and new situations, they evolve and attach new rewards that can make the original need for performing the habit redundant. When you are struggling to break a bad habit, you are attempting to confront theses conflicts in your emotional history.
How can hypnotherapy help you to break a bad habit?
Stubborn bad habits leave a deep imprint in how you manage your life. Bad habits can persist despite them being detrimental to your health, harmful to your relationships and a contributor to your stress. A desire to change isn’t always enough to break a bad habit cycle.
When you are battling to break a bad habit and you have reached a dead end, hypnotherapy can give you the tools that you need to eliminate it. That’s why many people seek professional help from a hypnotherapist. How can hypnotherapy help you break a bad habit?
Hypnotherapy can identify and remove the cause of your bad habit
Many habits were installed within a particular belief system or state of mind that met your needs at that time. You have now moved on from these needs but the cause of the habit is still influencing you to continue the behaviour. Regression techniques can be used to take you back to when you set up the behaviour and reframe the needs-habit (causal) pathway. The emotional roots can then be disconnected freeing to access new habitual patterns that suit your current lifestyle.
Hypnotherapy can break the triggers that surround your bad habit
Bad habits start as a conscious process and with repetition they become unconscious. You may not even notice that you are performing your bad habit in certain situations until a negative trigger prompts you e.g. your bitten nail is sore, or there are no more biscuits in the pack, or the bottle of wine is now empty, or your skin is bleeding, or you have just “lost” another 2 hours to procrastination etc.
Throughout your treatment, you will become more mindful of your bad habit, helping you to identify “where” and “when” the triggers are intense. Suggestions can then be used to remove the negative patterns that are associated with these triggers.
Hypnotherapy can reprogram your negative thought patterns
Your bad habit is paired with negative thoughts, beliefs and emotions that justify its continuity in a part of the mind called the ‘critical factor’. Negative thoughts like…
- “I can’t do that assignment” (so you procrastinate with a few more round of Candy Crush).
- “I’ve lapsed so many times now; I may as well keep smoking” (so you light up another cigarette!)
- “I can’t win with this diet” (so you grab a few biscuits in frustration).
…help maintain the bad habit.
In hypnosis, the critical factor is overridden enabling you to absorb positive suggestions or affirmations that have a more profound effect on your old bad habits. It’s as if your mind is given accelerated conditioning experiences to optimise and embed new positive thoughts, beliefs, emotions and behaviour that are aligned to your treatment goals.
Hypnotherapy can replace your bad habit with new positive habit
How many times have you heard people tell you to “just stop” doing your bad habit? How many times have you said that to yourself in vain? Ingrained bad habits rarely respond to suggestions “to stop” when they ignore deeper unmet needs. This is because your mind’s system becomes unbalanced, registers that something is “missing” and demands that the need is met (usually with what it expects to have, based on past behaviour).
The main therapeutic aim when you want to break a bad habit is to give your mind a brand new habit that is functionally more acceptable than the bad habit, and then install the new habit with repetition. If the underlying needs (e.g. stress and anxiety) are stable during the transitional period, the connection with the good habit can be achieved relatively easily. This approach is effective with “simple” bad habits.
Intense repetition is important for conditioned learning; to create the switch from the old bad habit to the new good habit. When the repetition is too slow and it lacks emotional intensity however, your mind can revert back to using the old bad habit. This is where hypnotherapy can step in and be so beneficial with visualisation techniques.
Visualisation in hypnosis can give your mind the positive experiences with emotion intensity, as if you have actually had those experiences in reality. This treatment approach accelerates the conditioning process. Visualisation can serve useful when it’s difficult to continuously simulate the emotions and behaviour in a particular situation e.g. when installing a performance skill in open field sports situations.
Hypnotherapy can treat the underlying needs of the bad habit
When you want to break a bad habit, the above process (i.e. habit replacement) is the most common and direct treatment aim with simple bad habits. The conversion can be relatively quick, particularly with highly suggestible clients. Try this hypnosis test to assess your level of suggestibility.
Some bad habits are more complex and might be defined as compulsive behaviour. This is because there are numerous underlying needs (emotions and beliefs) that have connected to the bad habit over a long period of time. This causes the structure between your needs and the bad habit to become very rigid.
Your goal in therapy remains: to break a bad habit. In this situation however, the underlying needs (or core issues) are very strong and demand treatment in the context of your bad habit. If the bad habit is eliminated without dealing with the underlying needs, the exposed needs will draw you back into the bad habit. Regression techniques may be used to identify and treat the cause, and reappraise any issues that were impacting on the habit during its formation.
Let’s take for example someone who wants to quit the habit of smoking cigarettes. You have tried and failed several times using “willpower”. Direct suggestions in hypnotherapy are only having a partial effect and you relapse in certain situations. The background to the habit of smoking is identified and reappraised using regression hypnotherapy. As a teenager, the origin of the habit of smoking was connected to control and manipulation from an abusive father. Smoking was used as defiance, to “take back control” from your abuser (i.e. your reward). Smoking was something that your father despised and was unable to control in your absence. As the adult, you now live independently from your abusive father, but he criticises you each time that you have a telephone conversation with him. After the conversation you feel tense and worthless and this is a recurring trigger for you to smoke. Your “abuse-tension-worthlessness-smoking” connection (or your underlying need) is treated and this helps you to quit smoking completely. Your treatment helps you install new, more functional habits and deal with the stress of your father’s criticism of you in a positive and constructive way.
Hypnotherapy can teach you self hypnosis for future habit maintenance
Habit formation is an ongoing process; as your needs change habits need adjustment to be effective. Developing good habits that can be adapted to your changing needs and situations in the future is a skill that can help you manage your lifestyle independently. Having achieved your goal in my hypnotherapy treatment, you will take with you some of the skills of breathing techniques and self hypnosis to maintain the independent “mind-work” that can be so useful for future habit management.