How to Prevent the Return of Bad Habits. Three things you can do
“I’VE WON! The battle is over at last!”
Those words express the feeling of triumph experienced by a person who has struggled against an undesirable habit and who has conquered it.
Yet, how upsetting a relapse could be to such a person! How disappointing to discover that the bad habit, believed to be gone forever, has made a surprising and powerful return!
Perhaps you have had the experience of relapsing into a bad habit you very much wanted to overcome. If that is the case, you may begin to doubt your ability to abandon the unwanted practice permanently. And unwanted practices may be many: overeating, “addiction” to sweets, overdrinking, impulse buying, habitual lateness, gambling, smoking, and a host of other habits.
“Why Did I Regress When the Worst Was Over?”
It would seem that once you have lived through the initial withdrawal stages of a bad habit, avoiding it would become easier. However, various studies show that this is often not the case.
In the book Selfwatching, authors R. Hodgson and P. Miller explain: “Relapse is most likely to occur in the first three months after treatment. In fact, one study indicates that approximately 66 per cent of smokers, alcoholics and drug addicts return to their old behaviour within 90 days of their initial resolve to change. However, those who are able to curb their addiction during the first three to six months have an excellent chance of maintaining that control.”
Why is the recurrence of bad habits a threat months—or sometimes years—after an initial period of abstinence? One reason is that certain pressures in life may resurface, and bad habits were sources of some temporary relief in times past. So even after you feel that you have overcome an undesirable habit, if you come under stress—such as caused by a financial setback, health problems, various disappointments—beware of a relapse! If you are bored or lonely, do not be surprised if your former habit attempts a comeback.
Other causes of relapse can be social pressures, conflicts with people, negative emotions, and being in situations where temptation is strong.
Even after an initial period of successfully fighting an unwanted habit, it is essential that you keep using the strategies that helped you break the habit in the first place. These strategies can be used continuously, or in some cases it may be enough to revive them from time to time, as in periods of stress or strong temptation.
For example, you may have kept written records to monitor your progress, such as daily or weekly readings as you try to lose weight. This is useful in breaking a habit and should not be abandoned even when you believe the danger is past.
You may also have had some means of rewarding yourself whenever you successfully resisted the habit you were trying to overcome. A modified reward system may be helpful in preventing a relapse. Or, in breaking a habit, did you enlist the aid of a friend? Allow this one to help you keep free of your past bad habit.
What other strategies will help you resist regressing, especially during pressure periods?
Resist by Substitution
Dr. R. Stuart, psychological director for Weight Watchers International, Inc., recommends the following for those striving to lose weight: “Keep your mind busy with a range of absorbing activities. Crafts work well, and so do hobbies. If possible, have the supplies at hand and the work area already set up, so that you can pursue your activity at a moment’s notice.” Perhaps such a technique can help you.
Yes, replace your former bad habit with healthy activity. Remember, that habit likely gave you some measure of relief when life became stressful, so choose substitutes that will effectively serve the same purpose. You might read, exercise, play a musical instrument, paint, or visit with friends. Start now by writing down a list of potential substitute activities. Highlight those that you decide to follow through on. Practice these new activities over and over as you did your former habit. This will make it easier to resort to them when you are feeling stressed. In fact, these substitute activities will actually become habits—good habits!
The Importance of Fighting Discouragement
Since the temptation to return to bad habits may be especially strong when you are under pressure, can you adjust some of the circumstances in your life to lessen the pressure? Even when certain problems cannot be avoided, you can learn to control your emotions so as not to feel overwhelmed with discouragement.
Uncontrolled negative emotions will weaken you. They will make you vulnerable to relapse, perhaps pressuring you to return to a bad habit for relief. How vital, then, to fight discouragement!
But what if, despite your efforts, you still find yourself starting to slide back?
Temporary Setback Versus Full-Scale Relapse
How easy it is to think: ‘I failed, so I may as well give up.’ Fight that mood. Refuse to let a temporary setback, or even several setbacks, spell defeat for you.
Consider this illustration: If you were walking up a flight of stairs and slipped back one or two steps because of stumbling, would you reason, ‘I’ll just have to walk back to the foot of the stairs and start over’? Of course not! Why, then, should you apply this false reasoning to the fight against bad habits?
Feelings of guilt often follow a setback. You might carry these feelings to an extreme by concluding that you are no good, that you are of weak character and do not deserve anything good. Do not allow yourself to indulge in such exaggerated guilt. It saps you of the strength that you need to resume the battle. So none of us will do things perfectly at this time.
Another point to consider is that guilt may be a convenient escape to allow us to do the same thing over again. In their book You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought, P. McWilliams and J. Roger explain this possible consequence: “Guilt . . . lets us do it again. When we’ve ‘paid the price’ for our ‘crime,’ we’re free to do it again as long as we’re willing to pay the price. The price? More guilt.”
You do not have to let a temporary setback turn into a full-scale avalanche of relapse. Keep in mind that, in the end, overcoming the habit is what counts, not whether you experienced a few regressions along the way.
In this regard it is wise to decide in advance what strategy you will use should you catch yourself slipping back to your old habit. Such a backup plan will equip you to fight the regression at the earliest moment.
Possible—And Worth It!
The fight against a bad habit, then, goes beyond enduring the initial period of painful withdrawal. It involves living through disappointments without permanently reverting to the bad habit.
Difficult? Yes, but entirely possible. The strategy that helped you break the habit in the first place will, if continued, help prevent or overcome relapses. The greatest benefit? Self-respect—a worthwhile reward in itself. And likely you will also be more highly esteemed by those who know you.