Three Steps to Mindfully Change Bad Habits

In my last post, I introduced the concept of using mindfulness to break bad habits – even the intractable ones like overeating, smoking, and substance abuse. Dr. Judson Brewer, PhD, MD demonstrated its efficacy in scientific experiments as well a clinical practice and documented findings in Unwinding Anxiety: New Science Shows How to Break the Cycles of Worry and Fear to Heal Your Mind.

Brewer’s methodology consists of three steps as follows:

  • Map your habit loops.
  • Update the brain’s reward value.
  • Make your brain a bigger, better offer.

Let’s say that I feel stressed habitually at the end of my work day. My trigger might be sitting in front of the TV after work at night to unwind. By force of habit, I grab my favorite chips and start eating. I tell myself, “You deserve to have something savory to eat after a hard day.” Here’s a map of my habit loop:

trigger, behavior, reward

I may have read enough to know that I shouldn’t be eating unhealthy snacks (plus they aren’t good for my waistline!) Willpower eludes me at the end of a tough day. I’ve tried substituting a short walk after work for stress relief, but the snack habit may rear its ugly head later that evening when I turn on the TV. And I’ve tried emptying the pantry of chips to avoid temptation, but then I’ll just find something else on which to snack. As Dr. Brewer would say, all of these strategies rely upon a discerning cerebral cortex which tends to go off-line under stress in favor of the primal rewards-based learning.

Mindfulness starts the change process by paying attention to the behavior and examining the actual reward that gets delivered as a result. With mindless eating, it’s often the case that we don’t really savor what we’re eating. As there is lag time between the filling of our bellies and the hormonal signals to tell us that we’ve had enough, we often pass the point of satisfaction and head into disgust before we actually stop. Then we’re left with that uncomfortably full sensation that lingers through the evening and may even disrupt our sleep that night. And, of course, we feel all the more stuffed should we try to eat a regular meal on top of our snacks. Does that sound rewarding to you?

Oddly enough, our “old brains” are wired for action. So, when we first laid down the snacking habit with a favored treat, the brain said, “Great! We’re doing something to address this stress thing. I’ll count that as a win.” Unless we update that value with new data, it’ll keep feeding the habit loop!

The data that matters is not cognitive; it’s somatic. We need to slow down and take note of what it feels like to continue with this behavior – not just in the moment, but in all the moments that fall thereafter. We need to notice that we aren’t really tasting our food. We need to feel into the fullness and the physical and emotional discomfort that comes with it. We need to remember how it felt the following day. That input helps reset the reward value so that the habit loop ceases to have the allure it once held. (Note: When a long-time smoker availed herself of mindfulness, she realized that smoking “smells like stinky cheese and tastes like chemicals. Yuck.”)

While these insights may prove sufficient to break the hold of a bad habit, we can seal the deal by giving the brain a bigger, better offer in response to the trigger – one that doesn’t feed the habit loop. So, what works?

Brewer suggest that we simply bring a kind, curious, nonjudgmental awareness to the sensations and feelings that triggered the loop in the first place. We needn’t rush to fix them; we can simply observe the experience. We might say to ourselves, “Hmmm. What name would I give this sensation? Where do I feel it in my body? What emotion seems to go along with it? What stories am I telling about it?” We’re not dissecting it or trying to answer the why of it all. We’re just describing what is happening.

Curiosity has a calming influence. It open us up to insight and learning. It brings out our childlike wonder. It effortlessly pulls us in because it feels good and rewarding. And in all likelihood, the sensation or emotion that triggered the old habit loop simply dissipate of its own volition.

These three steps take practice, but they’re not hard to institute. Map habit loops. Make space to look at the real results of the behavior. Practice riding out urges. Learn to be with whatever thoughts and emotions arise. Have faith that you can do it.