A habit is a form of learned, automatic behaviour that provides pleasure and comfort. A bad habit has long-term negative consequences, but it still gives immediate comfort, and under stress the automatic tendency is to revert to it. Why do people weaken on the threshold of success? Physical cravings and lack of will-power play their roles, but the major cause, experts now believe, is emotional distress—anger, anxiousness, depression, boredom or loneliness.
At first, the cravings seems close to overpowering. Gradually, however, they fade with time. But there is always a danger of becoming a victim of what psychologists call habit relapse. In habit relapse a person gets the feeling that he or she may never be able to change their bad habits such as drinking or smoking and they decide to enjoy it even more. “Relapses,” says psychologist Saul Shiffman “are the bugbear of every quitter.” And for good reason: 80 percent of those who are trying to break a habit will relapse within 90 days, according to G. Alan Marlatt, a psychologist and co-editor of the book Relapse Prevention.
Emotional Distress – It matters little what habit the person is fighting. The relapse rate remains tenaciously similar whether the bad habit is smoking, drinking, gambling, overeating, compulsive shopping or overworking.
Psychologists once believed that relapses were attributable to a person’s inability to resist withdrawal symptoms—the physical and psychological cravings for the old habit that are most acute in the first few days or weeks after quitting. But a surprising number of quitters backslide when the worst would seem to be over. After Shiffman set up a hot line for ex-smokers, he found that over half of those seeking help were not suffering withdrawal symptoms at the time of their temptation to light up. “Relapse,’ he says, “often seems to occur after the person has weathered the most punishing aspects of quitting and is beginning to reap benefits.”
To permanently rid yourself of a bad habit, you have to simultaneously unlearn certain behaviours and replace them with new ones that also provide gratification—and get you over life’s rough spots. That sounds difficult, but with practice and persistence, it can be done.
Marlatt compares the process to an American (used to driving on the right side of the road) learning to operate a right-hand-drive, non-automatic car in England or India. At first, he’ll instinctively head for the “wrong” side of the road or reach for the gear-lever with the “wrong” hand. In time, he’ll overcome his old habits, drive on the left and change gear with the left hand. But in an emergency, he’s all too likely to relapse—and move to the wrong side of the highway.
Yet in spite of the difficulties, many people finally overcome bad habits. Here, according to psychologists who deal with problem habits, are the strategies of successful quitters.
Plan ahead. Face it – Sometimes after swearing off, you’ll be tempted to light a cigarette, take a drink or hog out on rich desserts. The urge is normal, inevitable, and may come unpredictably and seem overwhelming. Marlatt compares these urges to an ocean wave. You, the surfer, must be ready for the wave in order to ride it out. Fortunately, the relapse urge normally subsides in a short time—three to ten minutes, according to Shiffman. Think through in advance what you’ll do when the “wave” hits. Plan to go for a walk, do exercises, garden or talk with someone. Rehearse your “surfing” techniques so that your action will be automatic when the urge strikes. Since tension is so often the trigger, use relaxation techniques. Picture yourself in a peaceful scene. Recall last summer’s vacation. “What technique you use isn’t important,” Shiffman says. “Any response is better than no response.”
Adopt new habits – Your old habits may end; your emotional needs won’t. Set up substitute activities that give you the same kind of satisfying, immediate results your bad habit once provided. Establish an exercise programme. Dance with your spouse. Practice deep-breathing. But don’t wait for the relapse urge to hit. Get started on your new habits well in advance of quitting—and practice them as regularly as you once smoked or drank. One way to choose substitute activities is to recognize what attracted you to the old habit in the first place. If you drank because it calmed you down, try meditation. If cigarettes gave you something to do with your hands, learn to knit or play a musical instrument.
Enlist Your Family and Friends – For many, the most effective method to prevent relapse is to seek the support of others. That’s why groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers succeed. Talking out your urges with someone who has “been there” can help you overcome them. But you don’t necessarily need an organized support programme. Family and friends provide strength too. Tell them your plans in advance, which will also make you feel more committed. Remind them that you may be irritable and tense during this difficult period and ask them to help you through it.
Avoid high-risk situations – If you always smoked a cigarette with coffee, switch to tea or soft drinks. If office tensions triggered lunch-time shopping sprees, sign up for an aerobics class. Skip tempting social situations if overeating is your problem. If you always went out for cocktails with certain companions, concentrate on other friends.
Set realistic goals – Alcoholics Anonymous says it best: “one day at a time.” Quitters often mistakenly set objectives that are too far off to visualize. One man promised himself a new car with the money he lived by not drinking. He had accumulated only a few hundred dollars when he returned to the bottle.
Aim for a short-term goal first, psychologists advise. A few days or a week of abstinence is a realistic time frame. Look at the period immediately ahead and plan for it: “There’s a dinner party on Thursday night. If I go, I’ll be tempted to eat too much. How will I handle that?” After you’ve reached your first goal, review what you’ve achieved, set new goals and gradually lengthen the prescribed period.
Give yourself rewards – When you were overeating or drinking, you probably thought of a snack or a cocktail as a well-earned reward. In fact, one reason many ex-drinkers relapse is because they convince themselves, “I deserve a drink.” In subduing the urge to relapse, you need substitute rewards. They needn’t be large; “If I stick to my diet for a week, I’ll buy myself a new dress.” Anticipating—and winning—a reward reinforces willpower. Each success makes it easier to win the next round.
Be honest with yourself – “Accidents” or “mistakes” rarely just happen. An abstinent drinker, warns Marlatt, may delude himself that he’s buying a bottle of sherry “in case friends drop by.” Or an ex-smoker may convince himself that a plane’s smoking section is “less crowded,” One Marlatt client moved halfway across America to break off a love affair with a married man. Now, she told the psychologist blithely, she had to telephone the man to settle a phone bill. “The minute she hung up, she would have been on a plane back to him,” Marlatt says. “But she couldn’t see that she was kidding herself about her motives.” Try not to deceive yourself about actions that set you up for temptation and relapse. Such insights aren’t easy. Sometimes the perspective of a friend can help you clarify your motives.
Don’t let a lapse become a relapse – If you yield to the urge for one drink or one cigarette, stop there. Don’t choose the easy way out and decide that the whole game is over. A lapse calls for emergency action. Say to yourself, “I’m in trouble here. I’d better do something fast.” Stop and think why you took the drink or lit the cigarette. What were the circumstances? How can you avoid similar situations? “If you take a lapse in stride, analyse it and learn from it” says Shiffman. “Then you’re more likely to recover and succeed.”
ABOVE all, don’t get discouraged. Few people are experienced at changing behaviour, and it’s unrealistic to expect success the first time out. It is said that Mark Twain, a dedicated cigar smoker, once observed, “I can give it up whenever I want to, I’ve done it a thousand times.” You can probably improve on Twain’s record, but it may indeed take several tries before quitting “sticks.” Always remember. Habits can change!