Most of us have the best of intentions to change habits we perceive as negative.  Changing a habit however, is harder than it appears.  The answer seems to lie in understanding the link between the habit itself and the behaviour, which results in the habit.

Adrenal glands

Sitting just above your kidneys are 2 walnut-sized glands called the adrenals.  They are responsible for producing your stress hormones (for example adrenaline and cortisol) and so are hard at work throughout your day. Think about how you felt when the alarm woke you this morning; how frustrating the traffic was on your way to work; how you feel about your current workload; how regularly (and what kind of food) you eat; whether or not you take in artificial stimulants, such as tea and coffee etc.

All these stressors affect your adrenal glands and, if left unchecked, can ultimately result in adrenal fatigue. This occurs when your adrenals become so tired due to constantly having had to overwork that they eventually cannot keep up and simply cease to produce enough of the necessary hormones to keep you in good health. If this situation continues, adrenal failure can happen with disastrous consequences for your long-term health.

The role of stress

Although the term ‘stress’ covers a wide range of both positive events (exercise can be perceived as a positive stress by the body) and negative events (e.g. missing a deadline), for the purposes of this article, we will define a stressor as being negatively perceived by the person experiencing it.

Stressors play a significant role with regard to habits.  We define a habit as being a repetitive pattern of behaviour (with an absence of, or low levels of consciousness) triggered by certain events or circumstances (which involve a stressor). Habits can either be health enhancing (for example exercising when feeling angry or meditating when feeling anxious), or health damaging (for example smoking when feeling pressured, drinking or eating for comfort when depressed). It would be helpful to know yourself well enough to understand what sort of habits you have, and what triggers these habits.  In the examples given above (in the case of negative habits), the triggers were stress and depression.

Being conscious of the fact that these two triggers result in, for example,  smoking and drinking could help you make a different behavioural decision next time. Perhaps a better option would be taking a brisk walk around the block to help release some stress and talking to either a good friend or a counsellor when feeling depressed.

Change your behaviour

It’s vital that you find feasible and realistic ways of changing your behaviour, so that these changes don’t impact negatively on your life. For example, don’t choose to go for a run or walk when feeling stressed, if you dislike both activities; rather, look for an activity from which you’ll gain enjoyment, so that the new association between stress and physical activity is a positive one. Keep a diary for a couple of weeks and note both events that evoke a response in you, as well as your resultant behaviour. You may start to notice a pattern occurring, and this should make it easier to understand whether your habits support a healthy lifestyle, or are detrimental to your health. From here, you could develop a plan of action with specific goals and their relevant time frames for the changing of any negative habits.

Some examples of positive behaviour choices that can be taken in response to stressful situations may be physical activity, meditation, expressing your feelings, sleeping, going for a massage, attending a relaxation class or just doing something fun. While some of these may not be appropriate at the time you’re experiencing the stress, others may be.  The trick is to find the most effective possible way of dealing with a stressor at the time, or shortly after it occurs. Since stress accumulatively impacts on our health, it makes sense to deal with it sooner rather than later, by means of healthy behaviour choices.

On a final note, be gentle with yourself when looking to change habits, after all “a habit is a habit and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time” (Mark Twain).