A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit

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Psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer was told by his meditation teacher: all you need to do is every time your mind wanders is bring it back to your breath.

He went to meditation retreats and followed this advice...but ended up exhausted. He was almost sweating when meditating as he tried so hard. Something wasn’t right.

Focusing was so exhausting.

How do habits work?

Judson breaks down the process of habits to a simple 3 steps.

Let’s take the example of chocolate cake.

  1. You see a piece of chocolate cake - Trigger
  2. You eat it - Behaviour
  3. It tastes great and you feel great - Reward

You then repeat the process.

Your mind learns that chocolate cake contains calories essential for survival. And so rewards you for eating it.

BUT, your clever (but not so wise) brain, makes an extra jump.

If chocolate cake makes you feel good, then every time you feel stressed or sad or anxious, why not eat some delicious cake? Then you’ll feel great too.

A new habit forms. The trigger this time is a feeling. Feeling bad. The behaviour - eating cake. And the reward - feeling good (temporarily) due to the yummy cake.

This habit loop leads excessive eating and eventually obesity, which many of us know too well.

(I apologise if this blog is making you hungry!)

Let’s look at another addiction

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You’re young. You’re a bit of nerd...but you want to be cool, like the other kids in school. Like the Marlboro dude in the advert.

You start smoking. Let’s go through the process.

  1. Trigger - See some cool dude smoking a cigarette
  2. Behaviour - You start smoking
  3. Reward - You feel like you’re cool too!

But just like the cake, before long, whenever you feel bad, you reach for a packet of cigarettes. Not to just look cool, but to avoid that feeling of stress.

So, I hope you can see, the same brain processes that were originally used to help humanity survive, are now leading to obesity and smoking - two of the biggest causes of death due to preventable behaviours.

Lots of us try to give up bad habits through an act of willpower, but that often doesn’t work.

Mindfulness: From Forcing to Curiosity

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So Judson decided to try an experiment... teach mindful smoking to people that smoked and had on average tried to quit 6 times and failed.

But one difference. Rather than using force, like he had done in his meditation retreats and failed, he encouraged curiosity.

This links back to what I’ve been teaching for the last two years - mindfulness (kindfulness) is NOT about concentration or focus - it’s a gentle process of cultivating the right attitude to WHATEVER your attention is on. Your breath. Your craving.

Mindfulness is not about what you focus on...it’s about how you focus. With gentleness, kindness and curiosity.

So, this time Judson told them not to try and quit smoking.

Drop the forcing...go ahead and smoke...but be curious.

Drop the forcing...go ahead and smoke...but be curious.

(Can you see how this is a much kinder approach)

To be curious about the actual smoking, and curious about the urges to smoke - the thoughts in their heads and feelings in their bodies.

The result. The mindful smoking program was more effective than the current gold standard to help people quit smoking!

People said things like: ‘Mindful smoking - I realised smoking smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals - yuck!!!’

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People said things like: ‘Mindful smoking - I realised smoking smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals - yuck!!!’

Why is this mindful approach so effective?

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So, how is this mindful curiosity approach so much more effective than the usual way of breaking a habit?

Well, usually we control our behaviour using the prefrontal cortex. The front part of your brain. BUT, as soon as you get even a bit tired or stressed, it shuts down...so back to your usual habit.

However, through this mindful, curious, kind approach, you become much more conscious of the negative experiences of your bad habit. The bodily sensations. The thoughts. The disgusting taste. The excessively sweet or oily or artificially tasting food.

Once you realise you don’t actually like it....you ‘feel it in your bones’ as Judson puts it, your prefrontal cortex doesn’t have to work so hard to quit the habit...because you just don’t want to do it anymore.

So this is what mindfulness is about when it comes to breaking a bad habit:

  1. Seeing clearly what you’re experiencing when you get caught up in your behaviour. That’s the curious element.
  2. You feel disenchanted or disgusted on a visceral level. Almost an aversion towards the bad behaviour.
  3. Naturally then, you let go.
Over time, seeing curiously the results of your actions, you can enjoy letting go of old habits and start new ones.

This is not an instant, magical way to break habits. But over time, seeing curiously the results of your actions, you can enjoy letting go of old habits and start new ones.

So how do I practice mindfulness to break habits?

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Mindfulness is about getting really interested in what’s happening in your body and mind from moment to moment.

It’s a willingness to turn towards difficult experience, rather than just making unpleasant craving just go away as soon as possible.

This willingness to turn towards challenges is supported by curiosity and kindness.

Curiosity and kindness is naturally rewarding. It feels good! A habit to undo other habits.

You begin to see that cravings are simply body sensations...tightness...tension...restlessness...
Body sensations that come and go and are impermanent.

You can handle these bite-sized experiences from moment to moment.

Easier than huge cravings that you can get overwhelmed in.

When you get curious, you step out of fear-based habit patterns, and step into wakeful being.

You become an inner scientist, keen for your next opportunity to learn.

If you don’t stress eat or smoke, check your urge to check text when driving or chatting to a friend…

Be aware of what’s happening to your body and mind when you hear that email or text come through...

You have a chance to become curious of your urge, and perhaps step out of your habit loop too...without force.

Conclusion

I’ve developed an acronym called FREE, to help you to free yourself from your bad habits.

Feel the urge
Recognise and be curious
Explore sensations in your body and thoughts in your mind
Enjoy letting go when you’re ready

FREE is a recipe for freedom.

Tune back here soon for an infographic based on this post! :)

And do leave your comments below to let me know if you’ve overcome any bad habits, and if this mindful approach helped you. I promise to read and respond to all your comments.

Judson Brewer is author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love - Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

This post was based on Judson’s TEDMED talk.