Changing a Bad Habit

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Well, friends, I need your help. I’ve got two bad habits I really need to change.

Ironic, isn’t it? I’ve been making a living for years helping people change their habits. I probably know more than almost anyone about what helps people change and what stops them. But right now, I’m stuck.

You’ll laugh when you hear what the habits are. I’m addicted to reading bad political news on the Internet and playing computer games like Hearts. This probably doesn’t sound too bad, I know. But when you have a nervous system illness like I do, this mindless mental activity is like a person with emphysema smoking two packs of cigarettes, or someone with diabetes having a loaf-a-day French bread habit. It increases my symptoms; I think it may even damage the nerves more.

If I were a cigarette smoker coming to myself for advice, here’s what I would suggest:

  • Make a plan. Like, “I will cut back my number of cigarettes by one a day until I’ve stopped” or “I’ll quit completely starting two weeks from now and use the nicotine patch.”
  • Change your environment. Get the cigarettes and ashtrays out of the house. Throw out the matches and lighters, too.
  • Enlist help. Ask a friend, family member or professional if you can talk with them when things get tough.
  • Avoid triggers. We all have places, activities, or people who trigger our bad habits. We need to avoid those triggers as much as possible. With smoking, that might be tough—you might have to change where you hang out or who you hang with. Family members can be a particular source of help or hurt. It’s tough to stop smoking if others are smoking in the house.
  • Find a substitute habit! We really can’t break habits. We have to replace them with different, stronger, hopefully healthier habits. So instead of going to a smoky bar, can you walk with a friend, play a game, sing in the shower, or do something else you like?
  • Understand that there will be mistakes and relapses. Drug counselors say, “Relapse is part of recovery” (although this is controversial in the treatment community). So when you make a mistake, don’t give up. Figure out what triggered the lapse, then try again.

So why haven’t I applied my own advice?

It’s difficult to change my environment, because the games and Internet are right on my computer, and I work on the computer eight hours a day. Avoiding triggers is hard for the same reason, but perhaps I could think more about what the triggers actually are. Maybe there are thoughts or feelings that drive my behavior. I have lined up some substitute habits: listening to music, eating a snack, doing some stretches. But I don’t always do them. Maybe I need better ones.

That leaves “making a plan,” and “enlisting help,” and maybe learning more about my triggers. So, help me out. What experience have you had with changing bad habits or helping other people change? What changes are you working on now? What do you think might be getting in my way? Should I see a therapist or addiction counselor? Any ideas or advice will be appreciated.

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