Whether it’s playing with your hair or picking your skin, many of us have nervous habits. But in addition to causing embarrassment, some habits can actually be detrimental to your health: touching your face, chewing pens and biting your nails can all transfer germs from your hands to your mouth, increasing your risk of catching infections.
Considering this, it’s understandable that you might want to quit your habits. However, it’s often easier said than done. A poll commissioned by Healthspan revealed that the average adult attempts to stop a bad habit twice a year.
Although ditching a habit may seem like a huge task, it is completely doable with the right knowledge and some persistence. I spoke to solution focused psychotherapist Gin Lalli to find out how you can stop.
Understand the habit
The first step to overcoming your habit is to understand where it comes from and recognise that it doesn’t help you.
“[Nervous habits] come from a primitive part of your brain designed for survival,” said Lalli. “If you did something once when you were nervous that made you feel better for a short period of time, then you program yourself that that works.”
“When you are in the primitive part of your brain it makes total sense to have that habit,” she added. “But look at the habit rationally and objectively, when you are feeling calm and away from the situation – does it help? Does it make a difference?”
Once you have accepted that the habit isn’t useful, you should then identify what triggers the habit. Try to limit your exposure to these triggers as much as you can.
Replacing nervous habits
“It’s easier to create good habits rather than override bad ones,” said Lalli. She recommends that you make these habits easy to achieve.
“If you want to drink water instead of skin picking, for example, then make sure you always have a bottle of water with you, especially if you are going into the situation where you will be triggered.”
You could also try filing your nails or chewing gum instead of biting them. Some people find that activities that keep your hands busy such as fidget cubes and stress balls have helped them to kick their habit.
Focus on the solution, rather than the problem
While it’s important to be mindful of when you are doing nervous habits, thinking too hard about stopping could be counter intuitive. Instead, Lalli recommends you reframe your self-talk to focus on the positive outcome.
“If I asked you to NOT think about a green bus, what are you thinking about – a green bus right?” she explained. “Well, it’s the same for any habit. Don’t think that I am NOT going to pull at my hair, think that I am going to smile and wave instead.”
If quitting cold turkey seems too daunting, try setting yourself smaller goals. For instance, aim to go one week without playing with your hair, then extend this to a month.
Find other ways to relieve stress
“The primitive brain is fuelled by excess stress in all its forms so reducing generalised stress and anxiety is key,” said Lalli. “Limiting your exposure to general stress, limiting negative thoughts, sleeping well, all help to reduce the irrational response.”
Exercise and creative activities can be good outlets to help you release stress and give your mind a break.
Ask a friend to help
Telling a friend, family member or colleague about your plans to quit your habits can help to keep you accountable. They can also support you if you are struggling, and remind you to stop if they catch you doing it.
Finally, don’t be too hard on yourself if you can’t break nervous habits immediately. Despite the popular saying that it takes 21 days to break a habit, there is no specific timeframe.
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