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Building Healthy Habits

“Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.”

Jim Ryun

Building Healthy Habits

When going through a divorce, it can be easier to develop new negative patterns or fall into deeper dependence on old ones to numb the pain. Bad – or self-destructive – habits can be a coping mechanism to comfort you during troubled times. But, if they ultimately make you feel worse – drained, exhausted, and depressed – it’s important to choose true self-care over quick and easy bandaids. 

Habits don’t just happen

Every formed habit is a result of cognitive programming. The brain builds associations between actions and rewards, pleasure, fear, and pain. The time it takes to build a new habit varies, but, according to a 2009 study by health psychology researcher Phillippa Lally, it takes an average of 66 days to rewire the brain and form a new habit. 


“I drank a glass of wine at night when I started divorcing from my ex. Then it became two glasses, then three. At first, it wasn’t every night, but soon it was. I realized I had created a bad habit of depending on wine to soften my thoughts and numb myself from the difficult things I was feeling. Ultimately, it didn’t help me sleep. I fell asleep quicker, but then I would wake up around 2 or 3 am and just lie there. This never happened to me before I started drinking so much before bedtime. I realized I needed to change my habit. Fortunately for me, getting rid of all the wine from my house and deciding I would only drink a glass of wine when I was out with friends helped. It cut back my alcohol intake and made me start getting better sleep again. At the same time, I discussed my difficult time with my doctor and she prescribed me some antidepressants, which I ended up using throughout my divorce at a low dosage that really helped me. I was glad I stopped self-medicating and sought advice from my doctor.”


Make an honest assessment

The first step to reducing or eliminating unhealthy habits is to identify them. Excessive eating, drinking, using tobacco or cannabis, watching TV, and associating with people who ultimately bring you down are on many people’s lists. Start by making your own list. Plainly and unemotionally acknowledge exactly what your bad habits are and write them down.

Find your reason

Before you tackle your unhealthy habits, start by asking yourself what your motivation is to change. Perhaps you want to get physically fit so you can be active with your kids. Maybe you want to cut out a vice because it’s affecting your family relationships. Having a specific, meaningful reason can help you be successful in changing your habits.

Identify your triggers

The next step is to begin recognizing the signs that you may be on the verge of engaging in your bad habit. Sometimes we may not be aware that past behavioral patterns are subtly framing our present craving, regardless of our conscious level of desire for them. Even the most subtle behaviors usually have a key “indicator” leading up to them, whether it’s a feeling in the pit of your stomach or a certain pattern of reactive decision making. For example, perhaps mindlessly watching videos on the internet triggers an overeating binge, or interactions with a particular family member leads you to drink one glass of wine too many. Notice these things.

When you notice that you’re feeling or doing something that triggers your negative coping mechanism, take note of the time and place that it happened. Many people find journaling the signs helps them recognize a pattern. When you can see what you’re doing, it’s easier to change.

Trade a bad habit for good

If you find yourself gripped with a desire to repeat a bad habit, try replacing the bad with the good. This is proven to work. Say you just ended a stressful phone call and your instinct tells you to grab a beer to relax. Instead, try taking a quick walk around the block. You may find that simply distancing yourself from the conversation by ten minutes was all you needed to reset your mood. For some people, a good way to cut back on drinking alcohol is having an alternative beverage handy that they enjoy – iced tea, kombucha, seltzer water, even something simple like ice water and lemon. Tempted to eat mindlessly in front of the TV? Try popcorn or freshly cut fruit. Portioning helps, too. If eating too many corn chips ultimately makes you feel bad, put them in a small bowl rather than eating them out of the bag. Try different things and go with what works for you. Interrupting your old patterns can help you create new, healthier ones. 

Make a plan and get support

When it comes to breaking bad habits, don’t rely solely on your own motivation and self-control. Set up strategies and schedules to make new habits more automatic and easier to do. Find someone to hold you accountable and remove temptations from your environment when possible. If you like, use an app to help you track your progress or remind you to practice your new habit.

Focus on progress, not perfection

Breaking bad habits and building new ones takes time. Start slow and don’t try to change too much at once. It’s better to take small steps successfully than take large leaps and fail. Seek to make long-term, sustainable changes rather than quick fixes, and keep your expectations realistic. Don’t worry if you miss a day or two, just commit to sticking with it. The longer you practice it, the more natural the habit will become. 

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