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How To Use Mindfulness To Break Bad Habits (+ Why It Works)

I recently listened to a Ted Talk by Judson Brewer about how to break bad habits. If you’re reading this right now, chances are you have a bad habit that you would like to break.

He talked about using mindfulness to break bad habits, a strategy that I have used in my own life to help get myself out of some pretty dark places, so his lecture really spoke to me, and I hope that it can be effective for you as well.

In his talk, Brewer talks about the role of mindfulness in our ability to break bad habits and addictive behaviors, whether it be overeating, smoking, or excessive screen time.

If you don’t know, mindfulness essentially boils down to awareness.

In meditation, often that awareness is on our breath. There are so many ways to practice mindfulness in your life, but for this article, we will lump everything that falls under “being aware of your mind and body in any given moment” (not lost in a daydream) as mindfulness.

A man smiles happily off in the distance
Using mindfulness to break bad habits

Just try it for a moment.

Take a deep breath in through your nose and out through the mouth. Relax your shoulders by removing them from your ears. Lower your tongue from the roof of your mouth, soften the muscles around your eyes, and take a few deep breaths. Feel better?

Brewer wants you to approach your bad habits in a similar manner.

First, let’s explore why this bad habit exists. Our brains run on what Brewer calls a “trigger, reward, repeat” cycle.

He gives a few examples, but I will recap the example of food for you quickly.

The Neuroscience Behind Breaking Bad Habits

First, let’s break down what happens in the brain that allows us to form a habit (good and bad).

We are hungry (trigger), we see some cake, and eat it so that we are no longer hungry (reward), and now we are happy. Next time we are hungry, we will eat food again to get the same reward (repeat).

Unfortunately, our brains can get this terribly wrong.

We can remember that cake made us feel really good, so the next time we don’t feel good (sad, upset, angry), our brain thinks that cake could help us out, so we scarf down a big slice.

Instead of the physical trigger of hunger, we have now linked it to an emotional trigger of feeling bad.

Eventually, we become overweight emotional eaters. Or maybe we are freezing our asses off in the snow, literally shivering while we take a drag on a cigarette that we just had to have.

We know it’s wrong. We try to fight it, but it’s not working. 

This is where mindfulness comes in.

Brewer delivers some bad news in his talk about the prefrontal cortex, the region of the brain that helps us stop doing bad stuff like overeating and smoking, or binge drinking.

It is one of the first regions that shut down when we are stressed.

Perhaps you’ve noticed this. I certainly have! This has always been the number one struggle for me when I have tried to break bad habits in the past. I get the slightest bit stressed, and all sense of willpower evaporates.

So if we can’t fight our way out of these habits because our defenses are down, what do we do instead?

Be curious.

Using Mindfulness To Break Bad Habits

In a trial with smokers who wanted to quit, Brewer taught clients to stop fighting their urge to smoke. Instead, become curious about smoking.

The people in the trial were told to keep smoking, but whenever they smoked, to focus on the experience of smoking itself and nothing else. 

I smoked for nearly 20 years and can tell you that smoking for me was mental check-out time, so the act of focusing on the cigarette itself would be an enormous change.

One client reported back that when she just focused on smoking, she became immensely aware of the horrible smell and taste. As Brewer suggests, “the spell of smoking” started to break.

Does that mean the client suddenly stopped smoking? Absolutely not! (Remember the whole bit about the prefrontal cortex shutting down during stress?) But it does mean that she was able to start rewiring her brain’s relationship with smoking. 

Okay, but how does this actually work?

Let’s say you are a smoker. You begin by really focusing on your smoking. Here are some questions you can ask yourself while lighting up and puffing away. (You can adapt and change accordingly to fit whatever habit you’re currently dealing with if smoking isn’t it.)

  • What do you smell?
  • What do you taste?
  • How does your body feel when you smoke?
  • Does a rush hit your brain?
  • Does your nose start to get a little congested?
  • What are your lungs doing while you smoke?

Chances are you don’t love what you’re experiencing at that moment. Keep observing your smoking whenever you do it.

Close of of someone snapping a cigarette in two
breaking bad habits

Handling the Emotional Issues Fueling Bad Habits

One of the key benefits of mindfulness is that it can help you become more aware of your thoughts, emotions, and physical sensations.

It helps you develop the ability to observe your inner experiences without judgment, which can help identify and address the underlying emotional issues driving your bad habits.

For example, let’s say you struggle with overeating and often turn to food to cope with stress or anxiety.

Mindfulness can help you become more aware of the thoughts and emotions that trigger your urge to eat and can begin to develop healthier coping mechanisms.

That latter part is sometimes easier said than done. In this case, you might benefit from working with a counselor who specializes in helping people make big behavioral changes.

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Mindfulness can also help you develop greater emotional regulation skills.

This means that when you experience difficult emotions, you can recognize and manage them more easily rather than turning to a bad habit as a way to cope.

Another great benefit of mindfulness is it can help you cultivate self-compassion, which is an important aspect of breaking bad habits.

By practicing self-compassion, you get better at treating yourself with kindness and understanding rather than beating yourself up over your bad habits (been there, done that, bought the t-shirt).

How To Handle Emotional Triggers When Trying to Break Bad Habits

So how does this all work in practice? What about when you’re stressed or upset, or sad?

The first instinct is to grab the smokes. That’s fine. You can, but before you do, be curious. Something bad just happened to you. You argued with your spouse. Maybe some jerk cut you off in traffic.

What is happening in your body right now? Are the hairs on your arm sticking up? Do you feel flushed? Is your heart racing? Is a lump forming in your throat? Do you feel anxious? Are tears forming? Are your muscles tense? How long do these reactions last? Does it change after a few seconds or remain the same?

If you still feel inclined, light up your cigarette (or eat the cookie or take a drink). What is the immediate effect on your body? Did it solve the problem for you? Do you feel better, worse, or the same?

Chances are it did not fix the problem, and if you’re actively trying to break a bad habit, you will probably end up feeling worse after the emotional satisfaction of having your “treat” passes. 

Continue doing this every time you engage with your bad habit or feel triggered to do it, and with time, it will lose its hold over you. You’ll be better equipped to see the habit for what it is.

There is something innately powerful in not allowing yourself to get swept up by emotion.

The mere act of stopping to notice what it feels and looks like in your body and brain when you’re extremely pissed off will help you detach from it and react in a healthier way.

Again, this is not a magic wand. You will have to do this over and over and over until it clicks for you, but it can and will click eventually.

Fighting your cravings is not likely to work. Understanding them, observing them, and detaching from them, however, can help you change your relationship with whatever habit is plaguing you.

A woman sitting at a table with her pointer fingers to her lips engaging in mindfulness
mindfulness and breaking bad habits

Does Any of This Actually Work?

Yes, but only if you want it to work and have the discipline to give it a chance. I’ve done this with smoking and have been smoke-free for almost two years after what felt like dozens of failed attempts to quit in the past.

It did not happen overnight. In fact, I got overwhelmed by “fighting” it and chain-smoked for an entire week before getting it right on the next attempt and taking a more mindful approach.

It takes time.

Maybe it will click for you in a couple of weeks, or maybe it will take a couple of months. Everyone is different. It WILL work if you let it.

So get after it!

Think of something in your life that you want to change right now. Employ these methods for a few weeks and see how things start to shift and change for you!

For more Ted Talks on how to break bad habits, click here.

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