Several weeks ago I asked for individuals to provide me with a subject to write on. From one of my readers I received the following question.
“You speak in your blog of making intentional changes. Can you identify any unintentional changes that you later identified as a bad habit? And, can you recall any details of how they got there?”
Over the years, like many, I have had my share of bad habits. I was a chain smoker for over a decade. I used to drink a gallon or more of regular Coca-Cola a day. I have been a nail biter since the earliest days of my self-awareness. The list goes on.
Habits are a funny thing. Whether good or bad, habits they are formed via a “habit loop”. You have a trigger, followed by the behavior itself, and then the reward. Once these habits are formed, we can complete the action without even being aware we are doing it. As a smoker there were innumerable times, I would light a cigarette and smoke nearly the whole thing, before I was consciously aware I was smoking. The habit was so ingrained, the decision-making and awareness portions of your brain aren’t involved in the process at all.
Nail biting is another habit that is 100% autonomous of the mental decision-making process. The only instances in which I am aware I am biting my nails is when someone points it out.
Habits can work as a coping mechanism. For example, I realized early on after picking up smoking, it was the perfect social escape for me. I used to be loaded with social anxiety. Large social gatherings, parties, bars, and any other venue where I didn’t know a good number of people caused a great deal of anxiety. Smoking provided me with an out. It’s completely acceptable to excuse yourself from nearly any social situation to “have a smoke”.
Following the habit loop model. Social situations made me uncomfortable, trigger. I excused myself to smoke, habit. I was free from the social situation, AND, I also got the buzz from the nicotine. Double reward.
To touch on a habit that entered my life without a lot of conscious thought. About 7 years ago, I drastically cut my caffeine intake. I had read a fair amount of information on the potential long-term health effects of habitual caffeine intake. I decided I would cut way down on my caffeine intake. No small feat really, I generally drank 3 cups of coffee over the course of the morning. At lunch I would have a diet coke. The afternoon would be another diet coke or two or three. Followed by Ice tea or another diet coke in the evening.
I switched from regular coffee to decaf coffee. I gave up all caffeinated cola beverage. The one item I didn’t give up was iced tea. After experiencing 3 solid days of headache and fatigue, I started feeling better. My energy levels returned. I discovered I slept a lot more soundly. An unintended result I noticed within a week of cutting my caffeine intake, my day-to-day anxiety levels were drastically reduced. I felt much more relaxed, and situations in which my anxiety would spiral nearly out of control greatly diminished. In short, I felt great.
When breaking any habit, diligence is required. If you become complacent, the old habit can rear its ugly head. In the case of caffeine, I was hugely successful. I felt great, recovered from withdrawals and never really looked back.
Several years passed and all was well. Then one morning, after several days of unrestful sleep and long days, I ordered a half-caf latte at Starbucks. I went from dragging to focused and productive. Over the next several days, the poor sleep continued. And over the next several days, I continued ordering half caf lattes. The next week, even tho my restful sleep returned, I was still dragging in the morning. I kept at the half-caf lattes from Starbucks. Then around 10 am, I started making a regular coffee at work. Within a month, my old routine had returned. I was back to drinking 3 cups of regular coffee in the morning. Fortunately, I refrained from adding the diet cokes. Instead I would have a cup of coffee after lunch.
Three or four years of refraining from caffeine were interrupted within a months time. My old habit had returned. My high anxiety returned. The habit had crept back in. Having learned the benefits a restricted caffeine diet provided for me, my relapse was only a couple of months long. I was soon back on the wagon.
Habits come and go. The important take away is this: living conscientiously, and regularly evaluating what we do and why, makes all the difference. While, habits and “autopilot” serve a huge benefit in life. It’s important to evaluate our behaviors from time to time to ensure they are benefiting us, and not hindering or harming us.