There’s a growing amount of evidence that mindfulness can help us kick our bad habits.

In a recent study, 63 participants who were addicted to stimulants received behavioral treatment for 12 weeks. Four weeks into the program they were randomly assigned to either one group who received mindfulness training targeted at cravings and urges or another group, who received health education. At the end of 12 weeks, researchers measured changes in participants use of stimulants and symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Eighty seven percent of the participants with depressive and anxiety disorders were not using stimulants at the end of the 12 weeks versus 67% of the health education group. One month later, 100% of the patients with mood and anxiety disorders were off of stimulants compared to 50% in the health education group.

How could this be?

Change happens through experience and community support, not as much through cognitive education.

The Habit-Forming Brain

Mindfulness helps slow us down and creates space from the cravings (desires) and urges (feelings) that can control our attention and decision-making. The reality is the greatest “bad habit” we have is our thinking.

That snap judgment of whether something is good or bad, right or wrong, fair or unfair all happens faster than the blink of an eye—the brain lays down a new track, and a new habit is formed. Mindfulness trains awareness of this and over time the actual craving or urge becomes a “wake-up call” in the moment to choose a different response.

Mindfulness helps slow us down and creates space from the cravings (desires) and urges (feelings) that can control our attention and decision-making. The reality is the greatest “bad habit” we have is our thinking.

A healthier response.

After we practice and repeat noticing the urges and cravings that span from cutting people off while they’re talking, to stress eating, to more intense and destructive addictive behaviors, our awareness starts to become more automatic. Our awareness of our choices also grows and so we actually expand our “cognitive flexibility” which is correlated with well-being.

On top of that, when we feel better, we also tend to be more resilient and so the spiral goes up!

Break a Bad Habit in 5 Steps

Everyone has addictive behaviors. What I often recommend is to think about what that is for you, then take yourself through these five steps:

1. Visualize yourself almost in the midst of whatever your habit is. If it’s food, visualize coming close to the food. If it’s rageful reactions, picture yourself being cut off by a car on the highway. (You get the picture.)

2. Notice what thoughts and feelings arise in the body. Literally, see if you can identify where you feel that “urge” physically.

3. In your visualization, don’t engage the urge. Instead, relax your body and notice the body breathing, “in” and “out.”

4. Staying with the breath, keep being aware of the visualization and the urge in your body. Notice how the feeling peaks and eventually falls away.

5. Thank yourself for doing this practice—it’s a great act of self-care.

In doing this you’re training your brain that you don’t have to engage the craving and urge and that they are impermanent.

Start off with this visualization and then bring it into the rest of your life.

You can learn more about the practice of  breaking bad habits in the second month of Elisha Goldstein’s 6-month program, A Course in Mindful Livingstarting January 10, 2017.
Adapted from Mindfulness & Psychotherapy
Elisha Goldstein

Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist and conducts a private practice in West Los Angeles. He is creator of the 6-month online program A Course in Mindful Living, author of Uncovering Happiness: Overcoming Depression with Mindfulness and Self-Compassion (Atria Books, 2015), The Now Effect (Atria Books, 2012), Mindfulness Meditations for the Anxious Traveler (Atria Books, 2013), and co-author of A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (New Harbinger, 2010).


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