By Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC
“Chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too heavy to be broken.” Warren Buffett
If a habit or old behavior brings about the desired result, why stop doing it? Change is only initiated when the solution to a problem starts to cause more harm than the problem itself. Individuals who seek help for addiction have little success if the only solution is distraction or cessation of the behavior altogether.
The reasons as to why one becomes addicted to a substance or relies heavily on external behavior as relief from internal pain is multifaceted. Therefore, removal of the substance or destructive behavior will only leave an empty void, one that must be filled with alternative methods of relief. Whether alternative methods chosen are healthy or unhealthy depends upon a proper understanding of the causes behind why an individual self-medicates in the first place.
Studies show it takes 21 days to form a habit; but how many days to break a habit? The latter question is more difficult to address and less likely to have a set number of days. In other words, there are many factors to consider: for how long was the individual using substances? Was substance use successful in easing the symptoms? Is the habit a response to emotional grief or tied to physical/bodily pain? These questions and more are important to consider when devising an effective treatment plan.
Many 12-step programs advocate for being of service to others: “out of self and into service,” as a solution to addressing addiction. While helping others has been shown to have positive effects on an individual’s self-esteem and self-efficacy, creating “distraction” to divert one’s attention away from addressing personal challenges is just that: a distraction. Doing something outside of oneself may temporarily halt an individual’s fixation on the destructive behavior, but not address the “why” behind their using the behavior as a form of relief in the first place. Unless the individual seeks outside help for understanding and addressing the basis behind the destructive behavior, they will have little luck keeping their sobriety.
Using simple psychology, take into consideration the process of association: making a mental connection between two things that stem from prior experience. If you can challenge the association, you can change the behavior. It may help to track the habit for a period of time to better gauge how often and under what circumstances it is used. Tracking the habit (you can write down in a notebook or calendar), also encourages the individual to take conscious note of their behavior. It may also assist them in determining whether the behavior is effective or not. When an individual makes a commitment to actively identify their poor habits, they are more likely to want to change them. Being mindful of one’s behavior allows the individual to gain a better perspective. It is not uncommon that individuals will start to see an overall shift in how they view other areas of their lives as well.
It is possible to break a bad habit no matter how large or small. But it will take a certain amount of willpower, commitment, hard work, and help from those around us. Having a social support system in place will create a safe and caring environment necessary to make much-needed changes. The simple act of telling those around us the goal we are working towards, and asking them for support, is useful when embarking on a scary and unfamiliar territory. Chances are, key influencers who support the individual will also want to see them make a change in unhealthy behavior/habits as well. Therefore, asking for and gaining the support of others will be a welcomed invitation. One thing remains true: when you have the courage to ask for help, you will never have to go through difficult challenges and make important changes in your life alone.
Susan Finley, Ed.D., NCC is an educator, published researcher, and social media consultant for therapists. She is a National Certified Counselor (NCC), Board Certified-TeleMental Health Provider (BC-TMH), and Suicide Prevention Instructor (QPR) under the National Board for Certified Counselors.
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