How To Break Bad Habits

Which bad habit would you like to break? Spending too much time on the internet, smoking, over-eating, excessive drinking, spending too much, or gambling? Bad habits form as a reaction to stressful life events and once established, they can be difficult to break. Here are some common sense solutions to help you get to the root of the problem.

Identify what triggers your habit. Are you constantly stressed, over-scheduled and on edge? Bad habits often make their appearance during troubling times. In the short term, they seem to alleviate stress and anxiety, but in the long term, they’re damaging and counter-productive. Think of the “Freshman Fifteen,” a well-documented fact of college life. College freshman frequently gain fifteen pounds during their first months away from home. This temporary weight gain usually resolves itself by Spring Break, but other habits (smoking, excessive drinking) may be more intractable.

Choose an alternative behavior. Ideally, you should find a way to reduce the stress and anxiety in your life. But if this is not realistic, you must replace the bad habit with a healthier alternative. One of my clients took a mid-morning coffee break every day to unwind. She enjoyed the camaraderie with her coworkers, but couldn’t stay away from the ever-present box of donuts in the break room. She now enjoys a coffee with her friends and brings a small container of fruit salad. This is now her new “habit” and she can resist the call of sugary pastries.

Ask yourself if your personality style is contributing to your bad habit and undermining your efforts to change. A stubborn, inflexible personality style can be incompatible with real change. Think of the diabetic who continues to gorge on sweets, the stroke victim who continues to smoke a pack a day, the driver who continues to drink after racking up DUI’s. It seems counter-intuitive that anyone would deliberately continue a habit that is self-destructive, but it’s all too common. Many patients have said to me, “No one’s going to tell me how to live my life.”


Is fear of failure driving your bad habit? When people have made several attempts to change their behavior and failed, a “learned helplessness” sets in. It can be paralyzing and can reduce their chances of future success. One patient said to me, “Losing weight is easy. I’ve lost thirty pounds. At least twenty times!” Fear of failure can make you see a tiny setback as a total failure and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, a dieter may eat a brownie in a weak moment. Instead of getting right back on their health eating plan, she may abandon the diet entirely and eat the entire pan of brownies.

Learn to break the behavior chain. One of my clients invariably stays up late watching movies the night before an exam. Common sense would dictate that he would review his notes and get a good night’s rest. But instead, he persists in watching movies to “distract” himself from his anxiety. When he tried a new technique (no television, no music, no conversation the night before an exam) he found himself more focused and ready to do some last minute reviewing. He now admits that his movie addiction was fueled by a desire to have a good “excuse” for failing the exam.

Look into mindfulness as a stress reliever. Meditation, muscle relaxation and creative visualization are all proven stress-busters. They can help you banish stress from your body and help you form a mental image of yourself as the strong, focused individual you know you can be.

Finally, a therapist can make an accurate appraisal of your current situation, identify self-defeating thoughts and behaviors and track your progress.

Mary Kennedy is a best-selling mystery novelist and licensed clinical psychologist at Focus Behavioral Health in Wilmington, Delaware

Dr. Mary Kennedy is a licensed psychologist in private practice in the northeast, and the author of The Talk Radio Mysteries for Penguin. Visit her at

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