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.

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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."