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  • Sharon Thompson, PT, DPT, CSCS

A Surprisingly Easy Trick to Break Bad Habits

If you've ever tried to break a habit, you know it isn't easy! Some bad habits could include smoking, chewing your fingernails, overindulging at dinner, and many more. Psychiatrist Judson Brewer has studied a surprisingly effective technique involving the use of mindfulness to break these habits.

Often when we attempt to break a habit, we rely on our willpower to overcome our desire to indulge in the habit. While this can sometimes be effective, it is contingent on our ability to resist our impulses. In times of stress we lose this cognitive control and suddenly find ourselves digging into the ice cream in the fridge or lighting a cigarette. Rather than depend on our willpower, Brewer suggests harnessing our brain's natural curiosity.

"Mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what is actually happening in our bodies and minds, this willingness to turn toward our experience rather than trying to make our cravings go away as quickly as possible."

- Judson Brewer

According to Merriam-Webster, mindfulness is "the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis." So how does this relate to bad habits? For smokers, this looks like curiously investigating your thoughts, feelings, and physical experience of the act of smoking. And for many of the study's participants, that investigation revealed that smoking was not a pleasurable experience but actually often revolting. Participants were able to pay attention to the tastes and smells that they were experiencing and break the enchantment of smoking.

"In one study we found that mindfulness training was twice as effective as gold-standard therapy at helping people quit smoking."

- Judson Brewer

Typically our habits are formed from a reward system. We feel a need, we fulfill it, and we experience a reward. Our brain remembers this reward and we repeat the cycle over and over again until it becomes a habit. We want to part of the "cool crowd", we smoke for the first time with our friends and we receive recognition -- the reward. And repeat. And repeat and repeat and repeat. Mindfully experiencing the "reward" can help the brain recognize that it is not in fact as rewarding as we once thought and our brain can start to rewire this system.

In physical therapy, we often see this play out with posture or body mechanics. Our postural habits are often hard to break because we are constantly trying to force our bodies to adopt new positions using willpower alone. Yet sometimes even the positions we are trying to force ourselves into may not even be beneficial for our body. Posture is not one size fits all. Instead of trying to maintain a perfect posture, a better approach would be to mindfully experience what your body and mind are experiencing while sitting or standing.

Try it now! What does your body feel like at this very moment in the position you have adopted? Do you feel tension, discomfort, maybe even pain? Rather than trying to adopt a "perfect" posture try to mindfully explore your body position until you find a relaxed and comfortable position. You may be surprised to find out that this position is actually "good posture"! Just incorporating mindful curiosity of your day to day experiences can help change habits -- the easy way!


Additional Resources

Dr. Sharon Thompson is a physical therapist at PelvicSanity physical therapy, Orange County's premier pelvic floor physical therapy clinic. Sharon combines a strong orthopedic background with her skill as a pelvic floor physical therapist. She is vocal advocate for those who suffer from pelvic floor dysfunction or pain, and is especially passionate about spreading hope and awareness about these conditions. The PelvicSanity blog focuses on presenting practical, positive information to help patients beyond the walls of the clinic.

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