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Start this season off right by breaking bad habits to put your best foot forward.
It’s not something I’m proud of, but I may shop online too much when I’m down, worried and having trouble sleeping. Given that I’ve been diagnosed with depression, anxiety and insomnia, it’s easy to see how this has turned into a decidedly expensive tendency. Some weeks, I find myself apologizing to my mail carrier (Marianne—we’re on a first-name basis) for the sheer volume of parcels she brings to my door. Logically, emotionally shopping is a habit I know I need to quit. I can’t afford it, it’s not an example I want to set for my daughters, and, while I do get that feel-better rush (two, actually—one when I put an item in my cart, another when Marianne rings my doorbell), I’ve fallen into a pretty pitiful pattern of buying, regretting, promising (to return it), procrastinating and wasting. (Good-bye, money I’ll never recoup.)
Depending on the study I consult (and there are too many to count), I could break free of making purchases tied to my melancholy in a mere three weeks. But anyone who’s ever tried to make a positive change or defeat a harmful fixation knows that old habits die hard. While some routines are easy to fall into or out of (I stopped biting my nails when I started getting them done—simple fix), forming or kicking most habits requires dedication, effort and action—more than investing in a monthly gel manicure.
Scientifically speaking, habits are neural pathways that have been wired in unison, says Dr. Shimi Kang, an author and psychiatrist based in Vancouver. “Neurons that fire together wire together. To change a habit, we must dissociate the firing and eventually rewire the experience to something different.”
Take nail biting. “Most of our actions each day require that we have learned things to the point of making them automatic,” says Norman Farb, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto. “It comes down to who has practised biting their nails. Every time an action is practised, the likelihood of performing it in the future increases, particularly if you were rewarded with a successful outcome.” If nibbling my nails is soothing when I’m worried about (insert anything here), next time I’m anxious, I’m more likely to gnaw away. Habits that involve pleasure and reward (which triggers the release of dopamine, a feel-good neurochemical) are harder to squash. “Anything that offers immediate pleasure—alcohol, drugs, food, shopping—are powerful when it comes to forming habits, and can quickly lead to addiction, which is a medical condition that can be understood as a very strong self-sabotaging habit,” says Dr. Kang.
It makes sense that the more we do something, the faster it becomes routine, so the time to make a change is now. Feeling uncertain? “Fluctuation of motivation is normal,” says Dr. Kang. “It’s OK not to be 100 percent ready to change; you just need to be prepared to try something new. Here’s how to get there.
Figure out your stage of change. There’s precontemplation (when you have a fleeting idea of changing a habit), contemplation (when it’s on your mind a lot) and action (when you’re ready to do it). If you’re in the action stage, decide why conquering a habit or getting one to stick is important by listing and ranking your reasons to change out of 10, says Dr. Kang. Among other reasons for reining in my online spending (read: guilt), I’d rank ensuring debt doesn’t swallow us up whole as a solid 11. If this remains my focus, I’m much more likely to stay motivated and maintain my action.
Watch out for triggers. The tricky part, says Dr. Kang, is that it takes time for new neural pathways to build up and old ones to unwind. So it’s important to “develop awareness of the feeling or experience that triggers the habit,” Farb explains. “What does it feel like right before I reach for that cigarette? Is there something familiar I can recognize? Is there a pattern to the habit being triggered?” When you know this, you can explore ways to respond differently to those feelings or experiences.
Instead of ordering athleisure wear and cactus decor, Dr. Kang suggests I take a warm bath, meditate with use of an app or read a favourite book. “The more subtly and quickly you can recognize a situation that generates a feeling of craving or aversion, the more latitude there is to modify the response to that feeling,” adds Farb. “And every time you do something other than the habitual response, you make it a little easier to choose differently again in the future.”
Be patient. You’re not going to wake up tomorrow and suddenly be able to walk 10,000 steps a day when you’ve basically been sedentary for ages. And the word “like” isn’t suddenly going to, like, disappear from your vocabulary. “After the action stage is the maintenance stage, and then there’s often a relapse,” Dr. Kang warns. “But just because you’ve tried two or three times, doesn’t mean you can’t do it. Most of us will go through the cycle four to seven times before we actually make the change.” Finally, good news for my credit card bill.