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Changing Habits: Urge Control

It’s the time of year where we may be trying to change habits. For more compulsive (or addictive) behaviours, we cannot simply stop or will-power them away, as this leaves a psychological void which often drives us back to the exact behaviour we wanted to avoid.

Eating sweet/carb foods, drinking alcohol, shopping, or other feel-good (albeit undesired) behaviours trigger the release of dopamine (the ‘pleasure/reward’ neurotransmitter). When we act upon our cravings/urges to ‘use’ we get short-term rewards (feel good) while we would have rather opted for long-term outcomes (e.g., better nutrition, less debt).

When we act upon our immediate gratification behaviour we strengthen the pattern. The next urge or craving comes more quickly and more intensely.  However, the less one gives in to urges, the fewer and less intense they will be.  There is hope!

Some ways to handle our urges:

Learn to tolerate (short-term) emotional discomfort.  When you are feeling uncomfortable or stressed, name the feeling (anger, frustration, boredom, etc.) and merely be with (accept) it. Stop what you are doing, sit down and take a few (or more) deep breaths. Ride the feeling wave.

Explore the feelings more.  What might you be frustrated about?

If you turn to your habit because of physical discomfort look at alternative ways to alleviate the pain.  Befriend the pain in order to get a better understanding of what the pain is really about (e.g. sitting at computer too long, repressed feelings, etc.).

Identify underlying thoughts.  Most likely there is an unrealistic thought or belief behind the habit.  E.g., “I need a drink (chips, trip to mall, etc.) after the day I’ve had!” Or, it may be a false belief about our self.  E.g., “I messed up again!”

Dispute these irrational thoughts and change them into the truth.  E.g., “Do I really need a drink just because I had a hard day?” [One could also question the definition of ‘hard day’ and what changes could be made to improve this situation or perception.] The new belief is: “No. I can do other things (see healthy distractions below) that will relieve my stress.”

Accept the urge.  Tell yourself: “It’s just a thought.”  “It too shall pass.”

Use healthy distractions.  Make a list of activities you can do to help you get through the urges. Some include: chores, stretching, reading, call someone, bath, exercise, and puzzles.

Fill the void.  This is key to making sustainable change and is where personal growth occurs. One needs to add new behaviours which increase meaning, joy, and satisfaction in life.  Identify values, goals, and pleasures and start to implement actions which match these intentions. Identify unrealistic blocks/fears which may be (have been!) preventing you from doing these more meaningful activities.

 Make a plan.  In order to change one needs to make a plan, as consistency is key to making new neural pathways and lessening former ones. Know when you go to bed what you will do the next day which addresses the changes you desire. Learn to ‘look forward’ to these new behaviours as it helps with brain chemistry.

Also of interest … View Dr. Brewer’s Tedx talk on “A Simple Way to Break a Bad Habit.”

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.