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Mental Health

Expert Advice: How Do I Break a Bad Habit?

Six simple ways you can make a lasting change.

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If you’re like the majority of us, you’re trying to stop engaging in an unhealthy behavior — or two! It isn’t easy to curb your eating, drinking, or smoking habit, especially if it’s a comforting coping mechanism. But you’ll never break a bad habit if you don’t start somewhere. To help, our experts have provided six ways you can make a lasting change.

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Meet our expert panel

  • Nina Savelle-Rocklin, PsyD, author of The Binge Cure, is a psychoanalyst and hosts “The Dr. Nina Show” radio program on LA Talk Radio. She recently did a TEDx talk on “Why Binge Eating is NOT about Food.”
  • Angela Mascenik, founder of the “Stop Over-drinking and Start Living” podcast is dedicated to helping women address the underlying reasons for over-drinking so they can heal their relationship with alcohol.
  • Judy Rosenberg, PhD, author of Dr. Judy’s Habit Breakers Stop Smoking Plan and Be The Cause: Healing Human Disconnect, is currently in private practice in Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills, CA.

Overeating?

Reveal your hidden emotions.

When we eat too much, we’re often triggered by suppressed emotions. “If I could wave a wand and take away all your thoughts about food, what thoughts would be left?” asks expert Nina Savelle-Rocklin, recalling how one woman told her that if she weren’t focused on every bite, she would have to face that she was in an unhappy marriage. “That was the void she was trying to fill. The key is to express your emotion by journaling or telling a friend. Once we let out our feelings, we no longer feel the need to numb them with food.”

Order that milkshake.

Deprivation doesn’t work; choices do, says Savelle-Rocklin, recalling one patient who was desperate to break her daily milkshake habit. “I told her to have a milkshake every day for one week.” But on the fourth day, the woman wanted to stop. “When she told herself not to indulge, she anticipated deprivation, which made her want the milkshake even more. But when she gave herself permission to have them, she had the freedom to say no.” Always give yourself choices and be kind to yourself along the way because change is a journey.

Drinking a lot?

Pinpoint soothing rituals.

A lot of women say they drink to treat themselves for working hard, says expert Angela Mascenik. “Ask yourself if drinking is still rewarding — if you’re not sleeping well or you’re getting headaches, it may not be serving you. What else can you do to relax?” This simple question will help you start new rituals. “Jot down which days you’ll that are truly soothing.

Take small steps.

“Start with micro goals,” suggests Mascenik. “You get to decide what your process looks like.” Focus on the next seven days and how many drinks you’ll have. At the end of the week, note what went well and what didn’t. Then decide what you’ll do next time to stick to your plan, like calling a friend. “Learning from setbacks moves us out of shame into self-compassion,” she adds.

Smoking?

Picture your why.

The decision to quit has to be anchored by a strong goal, declares expert Judy Rosenberg, PhD. “Maybe you want to have more energy, or you’re tired of leaving social situations to light up,” she says. “The physical symptoms of chemical withdrawal last 48 to 72 hours — after that, it’s all psychological, which makes your ‘why’ a powerful key to resilience.”

Grab a cinnamon stick. 

One of the best ways to snuff out the smoking habit is to learn to see the cigarette as “unfriendly,” says Rosenberg. Her creative how-to: In your right hand, hold a cigarette; in your left, hold a cinnamon stick. Inhale though the cinnamon stick and feel how clean the air feels. Then take a puff on the cigarette and feel the harshness of the smoke. Put out the cigarette, drink some water and go back to the cinnamon stick. “Almost 90 percent of the pleasure of smoking comes from deep breathing,” she says, explaining that the contrast between the cinnamon and the cigarette helps retrain your brain and make you want to quit.

This article originally appeared in our print magazine, Woman’s World.

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