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Jan 29, 2015

Healthy Living Looks at Breaking Bad Habits

Breaking a bad habit is hard; equally difficult is creating a new habit. Once habits become automatic it feels like we’re just wired to do the things we do. While, there is some truth to that it doesn’t mean that it is impossible to change. But how true is it that it only takes twenty-one days? In tonight’s Healthy Living I ask mental health therapist and president of the Mental Health Association Jennifer Lovell to answer just that.

 

Marleni Cuellar, Reporting

Twenty-one days. That’s suppose to be all it takes to make or break a habit. This theory has actually been around for decades and it started with a very popular self-help book.

Jennifer Lovell, Mental Health Therapist

“In the 1970s, there was a book called “Psycho-Cybernetics” and it was an excellent self-help book. And in that book, what the author was proposing was that people could create or get rid of bad habits in twenty-one days. In a self-help book, people could take this and he had steps that they can do: if you wanted to give up sugar, stop smoking cigarette, you can do it in twenty-one days. Because it was based on the principle that there would be synoptic changes that would occur by you repeating a behavior over and over, you weaken those synopses and a new one was built.”

 

Jennifer Lovell

The self help book went on to sell multiple millions of copies and the “twenty-one days to form a habit” myth was born. The book though was not based on a clinical data but more so on the experiences of the author and others. But, subsequent studies have proved that making or breaking a habit is really is entirely dependent on the type of individual that you are.

Jennifer Lovell

“If you are somebody who is structured and you can follow guidelines and you can stick to it, it could work for those people. But then you have the other people who this will not work for. So you always have to have a plan because the old pathways are there, it’s very easy to fall back into the old habits. They give up cold turkey on New Year’s Eve or day and make resolutions and say we are going to give this up and say that they are going to do this cold turkey. Well there are certain things that you can’t just do cold turkey and not replace anything that you are going to give up…you need to put something positive to replace it.”

 

Whether you buy in to the twenty-one days to make a new habit or newer studies that suggest sixty-six days, the formation of a new habit to replace a bad one takes commitment and consistency and while that sounds simple, it’s certainly not easy.

 

Jennifer Lovell

“No. That has to become your new way of doing things and you keep doing it. Now Prochaska and DiClemente talk about doing things for six months which is more reasonable. After six months we say you are in maintenance and after six months you begin to realize that it is now a new behavior, a new way of doing things. So twenty-one days is a little unrealistic. You can make it, but can you sustain it? If you stop after twenty-one days, you will not sustain it. For you to say it is now a new behavior it has to be about six months.  I wanted to get off sugar. Your taste buds change after three days. You want to give up salt or sugar; you just stop for three days. Everybody can do that for three days. After three days your taste buds begin to change. Seven days, your taste buds have really changed. If you go and eat sugar, everything seems really sweet. Twenty-one days, you really are not thinking about it, but if you decide after twenty-one days okay I got this wired and you do not continue to do the things that you were doing, it is not going to be maintenance.”

 

The underlying fact is that to make any change you have to start the process and commit to maintaining it. Lovell stresses though, that people with addictions should not attempt to break addictions on their own.

 

Jennifer Lovell

“If the use of anything is causing your problems; getting you sick, getting you in illegal trouble, getting you in financial trouble, getting you in trouble with your spouse or family, you are not ding your school work…that’s a big part of heading towards addiction—that’s one of the ticks we make for addition. If you start and you can’t stop and you have people who you go out with and once there is a bottle there and they are not going to go home until that bottle is empty, you are talking about lack of control, loss of control. If the person stops and promise families that they’ll stop and don’t stop, they go back. If you keep promising but you keep going back, that is a loss of control. If you are having black outs with drinking substances, drinking alcohol, that is the hallmark of an addition. The compulsion to use…I have to have a weed every morning, I have to have alcohol. If you are having to drink alcohol in the morning to get you going that is what we call the ultimate sign of alcoholism. If you have to have weed to be able to function, that is an ultimate sign of an addition. Get help. Those things you can’t do on your own. You got to either go to an alcoholic’s anonymous or go in and get help.”

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