Could Mindfulness Be the Key to Breaking 5 Bad Habits?

We all have bad habits. From knuckle cracking or endlessly scrolling through Instagram to late-night snacking, we all have something we are trying to quit. But it is not always as simple as going cold turkey or just "trying harder." In reality, all the willpower in the world may not even be enough to make these habits go away.  

But all hope is not lost. As Dr. Judson Brewer, a psychiatrist and author who works with individuals with substance addiction, explains during his TED Talk, the reward-based learning system can be applied to all habits, good and bad. The system shows how habits are formed in our brains through a simple three-step process: trigger, behavior, reward. Take, for example, watching television in the evening. Trigger: You are bored. Behavior: You turn on the television, plop down on the couch and watch a show. Reward: You are entertained and, as a result, feel good. A loop in your brain is now created and you go on autopilot repeating this behavior without ever really thinking about it. Relief from boredom now equates to television. 

But here's the tricky part: Our brains have been trained to avoid pain and discomfort so we are always looking for ways to feel better anytime we are not feeling our best. Now let's say you had a bad day at work and are overly stressed. Your brain reacts to this stress and wants to find a way to make it go away. It recalls that one time you watched television and felt good in doing so, thereby creating a link between television and feeling good, which drives you to turn to television once again even though this time the trigger was stress. Next time, it might be another emotion-based state such as sadness, anxiety or exhaustion because our brain has learned that when we don't feel good for any number of reasons, watching television (or eating chocolate or online shopping or any other instant gratification action) results in a rush of the neurotransmitter dopamine, our "feel-good hormone." The result is that we avoid the problem we are facing for a quick fix and create a bad habit that is set on an autopilot loop.

Dr. Brewer goes on to explain that there is a way to break this bad habit cycle and the answer lies in mindfulness. But what exactly is mindfulness and how can we use it to break bad habits? Mindfulness is simply the act of being present in the here and now. It is a state of intended awareness and it can be applied throughout our day-to-day lives. Mindfulness has been shown through research to be a very powerful tool. Individuals have found success in quitting smoking, losing weight and accomplishing a variety of goals through simple mindfulness practices. Research has also shown that it can help reduce stress, improve immunity and heart health; boost focus and memory; and help us better regulate our emotions. 

To take advantage of all that mindfulness has to offer and put an end to your bad habits for good, start by implementing these five practices into your own life.

1. Mindless Snacking - Visualization

There is a certain comfort that snacking brings—it is often a big part of social engagements with family or friends, and is a way to destress and unwind after a long, hard day. Certain snacks can bring back positive memories and feelings from our past, as well, and can be a source of solace in a time of need. But it can also backfire when the "I'll just have a few" moment turns into an entire bag of chips or cookies. How do we break the bad habit of mindless snacking? One study from Carnegie Mellon University says visualization just might be the key. 

The next time you go to grab your evening snack of ice cream, stop first and see if this practice works for you. Visualize yourself consuming the ice cream. Don't just think about it for a second, but truly walk yourself through the process step by step, from dipping your spoon into the cartoon to filling your bowl and taking your first bite. Taste the cream and sugar. Feel the cold on your tongue. Imagine yourself savoring the spoonful and enjoying the full flavor before swallowing and going back for more. Walk yourself through several bites if necessary, and then pause and see how you feel. Do you still have that strong desire for ice cream?

Through the study, it was found that this type of visualization can actually lessen your desire to eat. The experience you get from visualizing yourself eating the food can sometimes be enough to satisfy your craving. 

2. Social Media - Purposeful Pause

Social media has become very ingrained in our culture and lifestyles. It can sometimes feel nearly impossible to avoid and, although there are many positives to social media, for some it can also bring about unwanted stress, negative feelings and somehow make an hour (or two) disappear like that. And yet, often out of habit, we continue to engage. To jump off the social media bandwagon—or even just to reduce the number of times you check the various outlets each day—you may benefit from a purposeful pause.

Julie Frischkorn, a mindfulness expert at The Pittsburgh Wellness Collective, refers to the purposeful pause as "one of the most powerful and effective mindfulness practices that you can engage in." Frischkorn compares this pause to "standing behind the waterfall." "Rather than being pummeled by our rapidly moving emotional, behavioral or intellectual responses, we can step back, even if just for a moment," she explains.

Before you go to click on your social media app, take a purposeful pause to stand behind that waterfall and ask yourself 'Why do I want to do this?' You might discover that you are only turning to this outlet because you are bored, avoiding something else, or perhaps you have a true purpose and good intention. Regardless of the answer, by taking the time to pause and ask yourself why, you allow yourself perspective and the opportunity to think it through before making the choice to continue or not. Maybe you will discover it really is just a mindless reaction to every lull in your day and you would rather go for a walk, read a book or complete an item on your to-do list. 

If you do decide to engage in social media, bring awareness to your scrolling by noticing how the content is making you feel. Does it bring about joy, happiness or excitement? Frustration, anxiety or jealousy? If it is not serving you well, then that awareness can help you make the choice to step away. The idea is not to always avoid social media, but to be in control and actually make the choice.  

3. Responding to Stressors - Deep Breathing Exercises  

I don't always handle stress well. Whether it's my 20-month-old tugging on my clothes and insisting to be picked up while I'm prepping chicken for dinner, three high-energy children running around singing Christmas carols at the top of their lungs in June while I'm working to meet a deadline or something more substantial such as an illness in the family, I sometimes lose my cool and respond negatively, accomplishing nothing more than a feeling of regret. What I should do in these situations is take a few deep breaths, acknowledge the situation for what it is and decide how I want to proceed.   

Research shows that mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing exercises where you focus solely on your breathing as you take deep breaths in through the nose and out through the mouth, can help create space between the trigger and our response. This space (like that of a purposeful pause) gives us the time to think and decide what our response will be rather than just reacting in the heat of a moment. This type of breathing also helps to active our vagus nerve, which controls our stress hormones. By simply taking several deep breaths, we can turn on our sympathetic nervous system to lower our cortisol levels and calm our fight-or-flight reactions.

The great thing about deep breathing exercises is they can be done anytime, anywhere, for any length of time. Start by sitting comfortably in a chair, placing one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach or, if you'd prefer, just resting your hands at your sides. Next, take deep breaths in through your nose, allowing your abdomen to fully expand before breathing the air out through your mouth. During this time focus on your breath. If your mind wanders—as it will—simply bring it back to your breath and continue.  

When you feel that urge to negatively and quickly react in any situation, practice taking a few deep breaths in this manner. See if it helps to create that space between the trigger and your response, allowing you to purposely decide what your next move will be. You might even notice that this typing of breathing helps melt away some of that trigger-driven stress. 

4. Checking Phones - Get Curious  

We've all been there: You are busy doing a task and you hear the buzz of your phone indicating a new text message or email has come in. You have an instantaneous and innate response driving you to immediately react. It feels irresistible. So much so that our reality becomes buzz, check, buzz, check, buzz, check. Is there a way to resist this urge? Strangely enough, Dr. Brewer says we can do so by embracing the urge and getting curious about what we are feeling when that buzz hits our ears.

We can bring about this curiosity by looking at the situation with non-judgmental awareness and welcoming our feelings. Really experience that frustration of not reading the message and not responding immediately. Notice what happens to your body physically and emotionally. Does it make you feel anxious? Do you tense up? What thoughts go through your head? Experience each of these feelings or sensations for what they are, without judgment, but rather with pure curiosity. 

By embracing the feelings between buzz and check, you will come to realize these are just bodily sensations, simple physical reactions that will come and go. They are not a permanent state. Allowing yourself to step into an unpleasant moment and be curious about what you are experiencing and then successfully getting through that experience without responding to the urge will help you realize that you can withstand a few moments of unpleasantness and successfully ride it through. This realization in and of itself will help you let go of the urge and finally step out of the loop, peacefully leaving that waiting message for later.  

5. Skipping Workouts - Practice Intention

We're all guilty of hitting the snooze button every now and then. As much as I want to be a morning person who hops out of bed with a smile on my face to chase the sunrise as I pound out my miles on the pavement, I just am not. Some days I hit the snooze button once, then again ("Just five more minutes") and then one last time ("I swear this is the last time"). Then, before I know it, the window for my workout is gone. Evening exercisers, conversely, may find that by the time 5 p.m. rolls around they are just too mentally and physically tired and cannot motivate themselves to get to the gym. After all, the couch is calling and it is far more welcoming than the treadmill. This is where mindful intentions come in.  

The idea behind mindful intention is understanding what you want for yourself and how your actions will or will not get you there. What are your goals? What are you attempting to achieve? Then, identify the unhealthy behavior that may be preventing you from being successful at what you desire for yourself. When it comes to working out, what is driving you? Are there specific health reasons that are your motivation, or are you training for a specific event? Once you know your why, acknowledge the harm in the habit of skipping workouts. Does it put you back a day in your training plan? Is it negatively impacting your health or weight-loss goals? Now focus on aligning your actions with your goal. 

By bringing our intentions and wants for ourselves into the equation and our "why" for doing something to the forefront of our minds, then our motivation and reason for following through becomes the driving force propelling us out of bed in the early morning or keeping us from going straight to the couch in the evening. Be mindful about this intention when you are having the internal debate with yourself, then make your decision. Your mindful intention just might be enough to get you moving. 

Keep in mind, habits take time to change and mindfulness is a practice. When it comes to habits, it is not about completely eliminating any action, but rather replacing it with a healthier behavior. The more often you replace a "bad" action with a "good" action, the easier it will be to make a lasting change. And the more often you practice these types of mindfulness activities, the more second nature they will become. So much so that the next time you feel the urge to immediately react to a trigger or to check Facebook, you can instead respond with a deep breath or a purposeful pause. Even if you experience setbacks on any given day, know there is always the chance to reinforce the good or practice again the next time around.