Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
You can break any habit you want, but you need the right strategy to do it. So, if you have tried and failed to break a habit in the past, take heart. With a carefully worked out plan, you can do it.
Ask yourself, "Why do I want to break this habit?" If a habit seems to bother everyone except you, it might not work. If it's just a nuisance to you, why would you care? You have to have a powerful motivation to quit a firmly entrenched habit. If you want your child to quit a habit, give him or her a powerful reason, an offer that he or she can't refuse.
The subject matter of this article is a habit and not an addiction. An addiction requires a little different approach. Here, we will discuss "nervous habits' and "tics."
Nervous habits generally involve one or more body parts such as the hands, mouth or lips. Examples: twirling or stroking hair; tapping or chewing on a pen or pencil; cracking your knuckles; jingling keys or the change in the pocket; nail picking; thumb sucking; jaw grinding or lip biting.
Nervous habits can be a nuisance but they generally don't cause serious harm or distress. The purpose of nervous habits is to reduce nervous tension and/or provide some degree of self-stimulation.
Tics are of two types: Motor and Vocal tics. A majority of tics involve the throat, neck, face, shoulders or the respiratory muscles.
Examples of motor tics: head turning forward or back; neck twisting; squinting; blinking, grimacing or shoulder jerking.
Examples of vocal tics: throat clearing or coughing not due to chest congestion.
Tics by and large stem from excessive muscle tension resulting from an injury or activity. Some tics are caused by a neurological or medical disorder, which are not a subject matter of this article. However, the tips discussed here should be helpful when tried with proper neurological or medical treatment.
The strategy often successful in breaking a habit has two key components: Awareness Training and a Competing Response.
Awareness training involves identifying the situations, times, places, and people present when the problem habit occurs. For example, does it occur when you are sitting in a classroom or attending a meeting or when you are alone and getting bored or anxious?
Competing response is a behavior that is incompatible with the habit behavior. In other words, a competing response makes it difficult, if not impossible, to perform the problem behavior. For example, for nail biting, an incompatible response is to hold a pencil in hand or to clench both fists until the urge to perform the problem behavior is gone. Note that a competing response is performed by the same body part that is involved in a nervous habit or a tic.
Here is a 6-step plan to bust a nervous habit or a tic:
1. Identify the times, situations and your emotional state when you perform the behavior or are about to perform it. Habits become automatic. Conscious awareness is critical. When you can anticipate that you are about to perform your habitual behavior before you actually do, you are likely to be more effective in stopping it.
2. Identify an incompatible behavior that you can perform to interrupt or preempt the problem behavior.
3. Identify one or more compelling reasons and/or rewards that motivate you to quit the habit.
4. Imagine being in the situation that triggers the habit. Rehearse the competing behavior in your mind. It is called "mental practice." Using mental practice increases your chances of success.
5. Designate someone to prompt you to perform the competing behavior when you slip into the old habit.
6. Praise, social support and material rewards should follow successful attempts.
Here are a few more tips:
1) With such habits as nail biting, hair pulling or skin picking, involving the hands, do something with those hands. Hold a pencil, make a fist, sit on your hands or put them in your pockets for 1 to 3 minutes.
2) For an oral habit such as the lip biting, keep the bottom and lower teeth lightly apart.
3) In case of motor tics, keep the affected body part tense and keep it still. Thus, for side-to-side head shaking or for neck turning and twisting, make the neck muscles tense while holding the chin down.
Parents can utilize these tips to help their children break unwanted habits. However, do it in a way that allows your child to become an active and willing participant in the program.
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