Beat Bad Habits By Suppressing Your Stress

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Bad habits happen—even to good people.

Whether it's biting your nails, or putting off a big project, everyone has those little routines that aren't so healthy or helpful.

What makes a particular pattern of behavior "bad?"

Lori Campbell, gerontologist and author of "Awaken Your Age Potential," says that a habit should be considered bad if it's harmful to you or other people. This simple-sounding definition encompasses a wide variety of behaviors—from unhealthy eating, to compulsive shopping.

The birth of a bad habit

Habits themselves are neutral, subconscious patterns of behavior that people learn by repeating an action. Once they are formed, these patterns act as neural short-cuts, helping the brain save energy for more complex tasks. With habits you don't think—you just do.

But, because a person isn't thinking about the potential consequences of their actions, this lack of attention can quickly lead to the formation of bad habits. "Most people go through life letting things ‘just happen' to them," Campbell says, "They make reactive responses quickly and without much thought."

These reactive responses occur more frequently when a person is confronted by stress. Sheila Foreman, J.D., Ph.D., a clinical psychologist says that most harmful habits spring from a person's inability to respond to difficult situations in a productive way.

Stressful circumstances can lead to a variety of unhealthy coping techniques. Reaching into the freezer for a tub of Chunky Money as soon as your loved one goes to bed is the perfect example of such a technique. Digging your spoon into that sugary, icy vice is a quick, yet ineffective way to give your stressed-out brain the infusion of feel-good hormones it's craving after a long day of caregiving.

Don't break it, replace it

Bad habits are often formed as a result of subliminal pleasure-seeking. This makes attention and awareness the most potent enemies of unhealthy routines—two valuable tools that can be used to rid yourself of harmful patterns of behavior.

Here are some techniques to help you defeat your damaging behaviors:

  1. Recognize
    Before you can get rid of a harmful habit, you must first be able to recognize it. Habits, by definition, are automatic patterns of behavior, which is why Campbell stresses the importance of mindfulness in day-to-day life. Turn your attention to your habits—the good and the bad. Figure out which behaviors you want to change and what challenges you'll face while trying to overcome them. Whether you're aiming to break out of a fast food rut or seeking to get a better handle on your temper, pre-planning and goal-setting are both effective methods of working towards an achievement like breaking a bad habit.
  2. Visualize
    Don't dwell too long on the negative routine. Instead, figure out what positive habits you want to replace it with. Both Foreman and Campbell suggest swapping out damaging behaviors with healthier alternatives. For example, if you love to drink diet soda, try gradually replacing your daily bottles of pop with glasses of water. In your mind, picture yourself drinking the water, think about how good it will make you feel and how much healthier you'll be as a result.
  3. Affirm
    An affirmation is essentially a verbalization of the goal you're seeking and why it's beneficial for you. In the diet soda example, some good affirmations might be: A healthy body is the key to leading a better life, I am treating my body with respect so that it will last me as I get older, etc.

The challenges of caregiver stress

Stress and caregiving share an annoyingly intimate relationship, which can make it especially difficult for people taking care of aging relatives to recognize and rout their bad habits.

Just as stress can play a role in creating bad habits, it may also make it more challenging to rid yourself of them. "Stress strips one's ability to think clearly and stay calm and focused. It becomes a vicious cycle," Campbell says, "It's hard to break a bad habit when you're in a compromised, anxiety-filled state of mind."

That's why it's especially important for caregivers to employ a variety of stress reduction and management techniques. The techniques will vary from person to person, but may include: exercising, eating healthy, meditating, taking a break to curl up with a good book or movie, and venting.

Practice makes perfect habits

Experts differ on their estimations of how long it takes to form a new habit. Some say it can happen in as little as three or four weeks, but some studies say that the road may be a little longer.

A study published by the University College of London found that people who were trying to incorporate more healthy behaviors into their daily routines—eating an extra piece of fruit or going for a short run—required an average of 66 days of regular adherence to their new routines for them to become second-nature.

Consistency is the key to rapidly replacing damaging behaviors with healthy ones, according to Foreman. Even your most stubborn, long-standing routines can be toppled as long as you remain motivated and persistent.

You may be able to shorten your healthy habit adoption time by surrounding yourself with like-minded people. "So many bad habits are socially accepted and people tend to want to ‘fit in' rather than be healthy," Campbell says, "Start hanging around with people that emulate and live out your desired new habit."

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5 Comments

there are other articles on this site about burnout and taking care of yourself that will help. it has also helped me to observe my reactions to how people behave; it helps take things less personally and lose less energy. it has also helped to invite in the qualities I want more of (strength, resilience, courage, balance, patience, ability to see past the fog to the truth), and set reminders up to see every day.
by invoking what you want to become, you empower yourself to move in that direction. this is the essence of therapy.
This article is excellent -- just what I needed! I'm working to stop my evening wine-drinking, that has been increasing over my years of caregiving. My internist helped me take a good look at my habit. One thing that's really motivated me is journaling about my intentions. I first thought I'd list 10 reasons I want to quit, but my list has actually grown to 50+ reasons -- chiefly to get better sleep and have a more regular heartbeat. From this article I especially appreciate the step of affirming my progress. I'm doing great and I want to affirm that. My journal is a constant support.
This all sounds wonderful. My problem is that this information has come way too late. My mother in law is passive/aggressive and I am the reactive type. So, I have been 'reacting' to her passive/aggression for about two years now - until I just can't take it any longer.

Her method of operation has been to just blindside me with a snide remark or an accusation (taking something, doing something without her permission – whatever happens to enter her mind) and I would react (become upset and defensive – either leave the room or say something in retaliation. Saying something back to her has been fairly recent – the last 6 months or so since her stroke in Dec.). She would then sulk in her apt. for days until we cajoled her out. Usually ‘I’ would apologize. She never apologizes.

She is severely depressed and I am sure she hates me and blames me for everything loss she has experienced in her life. I cannot help that her husband died, that her friends have died or that she has lost her health and independence. I cannot help it that I still want to live and DO things and am able to.

Our caregiving relationship is broken. Of her own choice she has decided to stay in her apt (an addition to our home) and she doesn't want MY help. Of course, she still needs help - so we have been fortunate enough to get a home health bath aid, meals on wheels, visiting nurse and physical therapists. She also sees a social worker and saw a psychologist/therapist today who wants her (and me) to come see the ‘shrink.’

The therapist told me that memory is NOT my MIL's problem. She has impaired judgment - but does not have Alzheimer's. I told the psych/therapist that I feel betrayed and am tired of being blindsided by my MIL - which then causes me to become upset and my BP to skyrocket to stroke level. I told her that I do not want to be my MIL’s caregiver anymore and that for now, all I can do is back away – as far away as I can.

The therapist is afraid that since we are ‘technically’ under the same roof – that my MIL could get upset and fall. So now, I guess if she falls - that will be MY fault too??? This just isn't fair.

The therapist wants to see if this 'mess' can be fixed. I told her that it is impossible to reason with my MIL and that just being in her presence now is bad for my emotional and physical health and I won't do it. I will not be alone in the same room with her ever again.

The therapist asked if I had anyone to talk to and I said I belonged to a caregiving website and also had a dear friend who had been a full time caregiver to her son for 30 years who lets me talk and 'dump.' My husband listens. My sister listens. I do not see a professional.
I told her that at this point I am not ready to do that. I am just way too tired and overwhelmed. Maybe later.

So, my question is 'to see the shrink or not see the shrink' - meaning should I go to therapy or wait a while and see how I feel? I told the therapist on the phone that she could no doubt tell that what I said and what my MIL said were 'polar opposites.' I told the therapist that unless and until my MIL can/will accept some responsibility for her choice to abuse me verbally that I will not be a part of her therapy – that she can let me know when that happens.

The therapist will call next week and ask my MIL if she wants to come and talk to the doctor. I seriously doubt she will go. No doubt my MIL think ‘I’ should be the one seeing the shrink – because I am the ‘crazy one.’ The therapist thinks my MIL has gotten herself into a very negative rut. Tell me something I don't already know. :0(

If anyone has seen a therapist and feels it helped them - sign on here and let me know. I can't even begin to know if I am thinking clearly or not anymore. I know I am very tired and just don't want to even THINK about my MIL if I can avoid it.

As far as this article: I eat well, take vitamins, try to get enough sleep, and have begun walking daily. I also have cut caffeine and am taking herbs to help calm my nerves and lower my BP. It has at least fallen from stroke levels.

Suggestions anyone?