An Introduction To Mindfulness And The Effects On Your Habits

An Introduction To Mindfulness And The Effects On Your Habits, image of a mom and child sitting in a meditation pose

We all have our vices. Maybe it’s something physical like overeating, smoking, nail biting, or social media addiction…?  There could also be bad habits that affect our mental health, such as over-worrying or negative self-talk. Is it possible that you have a few impulsive habits you’d like to put to rest? This blog will go over how to overcome these struggles and how mindfulness helps with negative emotions.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present. It’s being aware of your surroundings and what you’re doing and thinking. We’re all able to do it, but not all of us know how to access this ability. Start by practicing mindfulness meditation exercises. One way to do this is by focusing on your breath for a few minutes. Feel your chest rise and fall, pay attention to  the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your nose. If your thoughts begin to wander, just return your attention to the breath. Focus on the here and now. Pay attention to this very moment and realize that it feels good to be alive! You can even incorporate practices like tai chi, yoga and meditation into your mindfulness training. Research has shown that mindfulness helps reduce anxiety and depression. It can help break a bad habit by teaching you how to respond to stress with awareness of what’s going on in the present moment.  It can also increase your awareness of what motives or emotions trigger these actions.

How Habits Form

Most of our thoughts and planning take place in your brain’s prefrontal cortex. According to neuroscientists at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), it is responsible for your habits and how you deal with emotions. Our brains are wired to learn through a reward-based process. It is a simple 3-step practice that is innately ingrained in your daily habits. Let’s take food for example:

  1. You see some food that looks appetizing. Your brain acknowledges that it is necessary for survival.
  2. You eat the food; it tastes good.
  3. Your body sends a message to your brain reminding it of what you ate and where you found it. This is known as a “context-dependent memory” and it helps you repeat the process the next time. It’s the simple equation of trigger + behavior = reward. In this case, see food + eat food = feel good. 

After a while, your brain starts reinterpreting the original message. For example, instead of remembering food only when you’re hungry, you start to realize that food makes you happy. So whenever you’re feeling bad, you reach for a tasty treat in order to feel better. 

Your body is constantly reacting to the world around you, leading to emotions that at times you’re not even aware of. When this happens, your brain automatically wants to help you feel better. It looks for anything you’ve done in the past to feel good and signals you to do this. This is how a bad habit is formed.

How to Break a Bad Habit

You’re probably wondering, how can you override cravings? The first step is to recognize which habit you want to break. Now ask yourself “What do I get from this?” Usually the first thoughts that come to mind are ones that validate it. “It makes me feel good” or “It calms me down” or, in the case of too much social media, “I’m curious about what my friends are up to.” But now you need to dig deeper, away from your thoughts and into your body. You need to think about how this habit makes you feel physically. Which sensations or urges come to mind? By getting clear on what the actual reward is, you start  to dissect the “trigger + behavior = reward” cycle, and are able to change the part of your brain that keeps track of how rewarding this activity really is. For example, when you start to think about what it actually feels like after overeating, you realize your belly aches and you may become nauseated. After smoking a cigarette, you come to the conclusion that it doesn’t taste good and leaves you smelling like smoke. 

According to Judson Brewer (Md PhD,) also known as Dr. Jud – a reputable psychiatrist and neuroscientist who specializes in habits, there are some basic steps in mindfulness meditation. He recommends the acronym R-A-I-N:

Recognize. When you practice mindfulness, you become aware of thoughts, emotions, and feelings going on in your body. This state of consciousness will help you identify the trigger for your habit. Maybe it is realizing that you’ve gotten used to a cigarette break after lunch or that any stressful event at work makes you reach for that pint of ice cream. 

Acceptance. Allow yourself to experience that unpleasant feeling without immediately trying to get rid of it. Recognize that It’s only an emotion or sensation. Welcome it and feel it.

Investigate. By nature, we are curious beings. Be curious about this habit. Try to figure out what is going on in your body. What exactly do you feel? Where is this feeling? How strong is this urge? 

Note. The last step is taking note of your discoveries. Describe what you’re feeling in a way that you will remember. Do you physically feel restless? Clammy hands? Tightness? Was your mouth watering? By learning to identify what happens when this habit is triggered, you start regaining control. 

Relying solely on self-control and willpower will only get you so far. At times you may give into your urge but by actively using this acronym, you’ll get to the root of the habit and learn how to break it for good.

When you first start putting R-A-I-N into practice, it may feel a little awkward and you may become distressed. Most likely the bad habit won’t stop immediately. You will probably continue to do it, and that’s perfectly natural. The goal is for you to start recognizing what happens when you do it. The effects of mindfulness will make you aware of the bodily feelings and emotions that precede the habit. You’ll be able to acknowledge what the reward is, if any. You’ll note how you feel after having that glass of wine, or wasting hours scrolling through Instagram and Facebook. In the case of overeating, you can either mindlessly scarf down your meal while being distracted by the TV, or you can slow down and take some time to be present. Look at the food, pay attention to how it smells and tastes. Dissect the textures and flavors. You’ll notice that it is much more enjoyable and satisfying when you eat mindfully instead of being on “auto-pilot.” Most likely you will consume less, thus breaking the cycle of overeating. I recommend watching this video of Dr. Jud talking about mindfulness over cravings.

There are many benefits to being mindful and present. It will help you be in full control of your actions. You will be able to recognize your emotions and what led to you feeling that way. The result will not only help you break bad habits, but it will also leave you feeling happier. You can start living life to its fullest potential by being in the now.