“Our liquor was but a symptom. So we had to get down to the causes.” -BB
The pattern. Habits are hard to break. Yes, we know that, but why? What you’ll read in most books and articles is that your brain is like a big, complicated bundle of constantly changing electrical wires. When certain connections are hooked up and used a lot, they are maintained well and are hard to break apart even if you want them to. After a while though, if you refuse to let the connection be made or substitute it for a different one, the old one will fall apart or be replaced by the new one. If that analogy isn’t working for you though… habits are basically unconscious patterns of behavior that become deeply hard-wired into our brains by constant repetition. We associate most of our habits with some sort of short-term reward or pleasure, which create the cravings that we struggle with the most.
To break the habit, we have to break the pattern that leads to it.
To break the pattern, we have to stop it before it gets started.
To stop it before it gets started, we have to identify the starting point: the trigger.
What’s a trigger? Sometimes, they’re emotional: we’re stressed and, without any conscious thought, we begin to bite our nails. Sometimes, they’re environmental: we get into our car, put on our seatbelt, start the ignition, roll down the window, and light up a cigarette because that’s the same pattern we’ve performed a thousand times before.
Sometimes, it’s both.
Patterns and routines run our lives. Most of our actions are performed on autopilot, which is a good thing. Imagine if every movement you made had to be a conscious decision that required your complete and total attention? Our minds and our lives would be so filled with mundane decisions all day long that we would have no room to think about more important or creative things. Most of our habits are good, essential, in fact, but when we’ve built up a bad one, how do we stop it?
Identifying our triggers. If we can identify our triggers, we can stop the pattern before it gets started and turn off the auto-pilot switch before it even gets turned on. This can be difficult, and you may identify the wrong trigger a few times before you get it right. Remember to be patient and persistent.
How? Try to work backwards. When you are in the middle of your craving, think back to when it began. What were you feeling? Where were you? What was near you? Who was near you?
Breaking the pattern by eliminating the trigger. If you light up a cigarette every time you get in the car, try switching up your routine: putt in a piece of gum or a sucker, and turn the radio on before you reach for your seatbelt, and keep the cigarettes out of view. You’d be surprised how well distraction can work. If you stop by the liquor store on the way home from work, go a different route. If you can’t resist the snack aisle at your usual grocery store, try a different store that you’re unfamiliar with.
If the trigger is impossible to escape. If you want to quit smoking, but your partner still smokes in front of you, or if you want to quit eating refined sugar, but your kids’ yummy snacks are always in the refrigerator, just take a moment, walk away from the situation, get yourself alone, maybe in front of a mirror, do some deep breathing, and try to distract yourself with other thoughts.
It’s all about tricking yourself. I don’t want you to feel like you’re waging war against yourself, but at first, it might feel like that. You have to strategize, evade the enemy (i.e. the trigger), and prepare for trigger to attack (because eventually it will). Imagine there are two separate parts to yourself: the conscious part and the unconscious part. You’re in control of the conscious part, and you’re trying to fool and trip up the unconscious part as best as you can.
Example? When I was pulling out my hair (i.e. trichotillomania), it got to a point where there was a thin patch at the crown of my head. I started wearing a hat (a beanie actually in the middle of summer; it was pretty embarrassing, but not as bad as having a bald spot). Every time I took the hat off, the habit would start again, so I’d have to put it back on. For months, the only time I took it off was to shower and then put a clean one on when I got out. It took a long time, but eventually the pattern that had been hard-wired into my brain got dismantled. Sometimes when I’m really stressed, I’ll find my fingers, unconsciously, creeping around on my scalp, and I’ll stop everything I’m doing to run and find a beanie before the pattern wiring begins to assemble again.
Avoid boredom. Besides stress, I think boredom is one of the most common triggers. Make a list of things you can do when you get bored instead of wandering into the kitchen or going outside for another cigarette.
Examine your support system: If there are people in your life who, when you tell them you’re trying to quit eating refined sugar or want to quit smoking, try to pressure you in any way, you need to either talk to them or stop associating with them. Even if it’s your best friend saying, ‘You’re beautiful and you don’t need to lose weight, so just quit being crazy and indulge in some chocolate cake. I mean what’s the point of living if you don’t get to enjoy yourself, right?’ Even if it is your best friend, she’s not coming from a place of love and support. Maybe, unconsciously, she doesn’t want you to stop eating sugar, or going out to the bar to drink, because she doesn’t want to indulge by herself and feel self-conscious. Whatever her reasons, you have to be honest and stand up for yourself. Tell her what you want and why, and that, as your best friend, she should support you. You’re not telling her that she needs to stop eating sugar, or going out to drink, so she has no right to tell you that you have to continue a behavior that you’re no longer happy with. “The people who matter don’t mind; and the people who mind don’t matter.” –Dr. Seuss. And I know it sounds harsh, but if there are people who, even after you explain your desire to live a happier, healthier life, continue to pressure you or be unsupportive, you have to realize that they do not have your best interests at heart, and maybe it’s time to get some new friends.
Accountability: If you do have people in your life who are truly supportive, use them. They love you and they want to help. Call them when you’re feeling your cravings and talk through it. Accountability is a powerful motivator. If you don’t have someone like that, go online. There are so many online forums specialized to help people at all hours of the day when they’re struggling with their cravings. Even better? When making positive new habits (e.g. jogging, going to the gym, salad prepping), do it with your supportive friends.
Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous: If you’re struggling with a serious drug or alcohol addiction, try NA or AA. (If you’re SERIOUSLY struggling with a drug or alcohol addiction and are experiencing any health issues or danger to your well-being, seek immediate treatment at a hospital, detox center, or inpatient facility). I went to NA meetings for a long time. Some meetings were great. Some were awful. In some I met friends who were serious about getting sober, and in others, I met people who weren’t serious, just taking a tolerance break, or actually looking for other people to sell drugs to. If you don’t like one meeting, you’re not required to sit through it. Walk out. Try a different one. Eventually you’ll find one with a cool group of people that you relate and feel comfortable with. It’s a great program too because at some point, you will stop being a sponsee and become a sponsor. As a sponsee, you’re motivated by accountability and support because you have to check in with your sponsor and if you’re feeling weak, you can call them at any hour for a little pep-talk. As a sponsor though, you’re motivated by something way more powerful: being a role-model. At that point, if you relapse and your sponsee sees that even you, the sponsor, couldn’t keep your shit together, how do you think he’s going to feel about his chances?
Positive triggers? Triggers might sound evil, but if you can work them to your benefit, you’d be amazed how easily you can start building good habits. If you’re trying to go jogging or get through a workout DVD in the mornings, but every time you wake up you have to get everything together and set up, you’re forcing yourself to do a bunch of work first thing in the morning. That’s tough stuff. If you have an insane amount of willpower, you can probably power through it and eventually get a routine down, but why make it harder than it needs to be? Set up your exercise mat, lay out your clothes and shoes, and get the DVD ready to play the night before, so all you have to do in the morning is let those triggers you laid out the night before work their nasty little magic on you.