7 Science-Backed Ways on How to Break a Bad Habit

We are creatures of habit—routines and behaviors aren’t just things we do consciously, they can become ingrained in our mind and body. Positive behaviors can be empowering, but bad habits can be detrimental to our physical and mental health.

Science-Backed Ways on How to Break a Bad Habit
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Luckily, there are different, science-backed methods to break a bad habit. Before delving into how to break them, it’s important to understand how habits form and the science behind the process.

If you’re looking at nurse practitioner online programs or other healthcare courses, understanding how to break a bad habit will be beneficial. It might help you break bad studying habits and could be useful with your future patients. 

How habits form

People develop habits whether they’re aware of it or not. According to research by neuroscientists, habits can be taught and learned, but they can also be developed unconsciously as a response to internal or external stress.

How habits form
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Tying your shoes is a great and almost universal example of a learnable habit. It’s an action that goes from requiring effort and thought to an automatic process for most people—even if they’re preoccupied or their mind is elsewhere.

While there are a few theories, many scientists believe that habits like this form because the brain loves automation. Our brains create habits because thinking consumes energy and time—routines and habits help our brains save resources.

On the topic of brains, love, and automation—the brain also loves establishing associations, which is why habits strengthen over time. The more times you perform the routine that’s part of a habit, your brain may start to associate it with the place you’re in or even the emotion you’re feeling at the time.

There are also external factors that can contribute to a habit. For instance, if the habit is linked to an addictive substance, like nicotine, or strong positive reinforcement.

Habit loops

While habits are incredibly complex and personal to an individual, scientists have created the ‘habit loop’ model to help us better identify and understand habits. It’s an indispensable tool if you’re looking to stop a bad habit or help someone else with one.

Habit loops
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A habit loop allows an individual to get an objective view of their bad habit and understand what causes it—making it easier to quit. The habit loop model consists of three elements: 

  • The cue
  • Routine (action)
  • The reward

The cue refers to the trigger or circumstance that initiates the habit. This could be a certain location, time, other people, or emotional state. For example, stress could be an emotional trigger that initiates someone’s bad habit of smoking.

Routine, as the term suggests, is the behavior that occurs almost automatically after the trigger happens. Depending on if it’s a good or bad habit, the result of a routine could be considered beneficial or negative. 

The reward in a habit loop refers to the payoff or positive reinforcement that happens as a result of the routine. In most cases, it’s a form of instant gratification and also drives the individual to continue their habit—making it hard to break the craving. 

An example of a habit loop in action is an individual getting stressed (an emotional trigger) which sets off smoking a cigarette (the routine) which makes them feel more relaxed (the reward). 

7 ways to break them

Understanding how habits form along with the habit loop model is only the first step. You can take that knowledge and apply it with our 7 science-backed methods to try to break your bad habits for good. 

1. Track your behavior

One of the most effective ways to stop a bad habit is to track your behavior and use the habit loop model. Break down your habit into three steps—cue, routine, and reward. This will help you better understand your habits and identify any triggers.

Once you understand the ‘cues’ for your habit, you can start actively avoiding them or cutting them out from your life.

2. Be understanding

When breaking a bad habit, it’s essential to be patient and understanding with yourself. Not many people can go cold turkey with a habit and break it in a few days. There might be days when you fall back into a habit, and that’s okay.

In a study based on data from an Ontario Tobacco Survey, researchers found that it took ex-smokers 8 to 11 tries before they quit for good. Breaking a bad habit is a process that takes time and a lot of patience with yourself.

3.Reward yourself

Positive reinforcement can be a strong motivator for quitting a bad habit. You can even set yourself up with goals along with the reward. For example, you could reward yourself with a nice dinner or gift if you go a week avoiding the bad habit.

4. Replacing the bad habit

If you understand your habit through the habit loop model, you can try replacing the routine aspect of the bad habit.  This would lead to your brain associating the cue for the bad habit with another action—eventually replacing it completely.

5. Controlling your environment

Controlling your environment is a science-backed method that is challenging, but effective. By controlling your environment, you’d be removing any items integral to your bad habit, limiting access to them—so even if you experience a cue or trigger, you can’t do the routine.

6. Get support

Breaking a bad habit isn’t a journey that you need to brave alone. Talk to friends and family, informing them of your plans. They might have great advice on curbing bad habits, be a strong source of encouragement, and hold you accountable.

7. Use a habit tracker

Monitoring your progress through a habit tracker app or journal is a great way to keep yourself accountable. It’s also good for tracking how many times you might perform a habit and identifying triggers or environmental factors that act as a cue.

Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:May 29, 2024

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