We all have our routines and quirks, the things we do regularly without giving them much thought. For the most part, established practices allow us to navigate life more smoothly. For example, imagine if brushing our teeth and wearing shoes were decisions we had to make each day — we’d be tired before we even left the house. But other unconscious behaviors can be destructive to our well-being, like poor eating patterns or how we respond in certain social situations.
From a neurological point of view, habits are a cycle. First, a situation triggers us. We respond with a particular action and are rewarded. Then, we enjoy the reward so much we begin to crave it. We seek out similar situations to re-perform our actions and receive our reward again. So the cycle repeats; trigger, action, reward, trigger, action, reward. And it will continue repeating itself unless we mindfully intercept the process to create awareness of other choices available to us.
Cravings and addictions are habits of wanting. Our bodies actively seek out an experience that changes us “for the better” in some way. Cravings can have valid biological and sociological grounds. Before food became ubiquitous, our craving for fat helped us build up energy reserves for periods when sustenance was scarce.
However, some cravings might be inappropriate for modern life and require moderation. Others may be falsely acquired, meaning our bodies or minds are “tricked” into thinking something is good for us when it isn’t. For example, smoking makes us feel good, but only for a brief time. It fosters dependency, so we need it more often, all the while damaging our long-term health.
Become mindful of your cravings by catching yourself before you act on them. Think about what may have triggered your desire. What are you experiencing physically, emotionally, and mentally? Will your habitual actions help to address the situation? Is there something more productive you can do instead? But don’t beat yourself up. If, in the end, you still want that burger or cigarette, have it and enjoy it, knowing it was a choice rather than a thoughtless habit. Mindfulness is also about self-compassion and allowing ourselves time to change.
Habits of Distraction
Habits of distraction are disengaged behaviors like flopping down on the sofa to watch television the minute we get home or constantly checking social media. They can mean we never give our full attention to ourselves or the people we love. We might not even know what we’re trying to distract ourselves from. So, take time out from your distractions and examine your experience. Are you anxious, restless, or perhaps just exhausted? Approach your feelings with a gentle curiousness and without judgment.
Habits of Protection
Habitual resistance responses can become so ingrained in us that we lose sight of what and why we’re resisting. These behaviors are sometimes referred to as “fight or flight” responses. A negative experience makes us feel threatened by a particular situation, and we either run away from it or fight against it. But by reacting unconsciously to a perceived threat, we deny our power to examine and influence a situation. We don’t acknowledge to ourselves that we, others, or situations may have changed.
Instead of automatically responding to cues, take time to examine the emotions they elicit. Then, actively console yourself as you do so — if you’re experiencing fear, remind yourself why you should feel safe. Acknowledging the feelings we’re responding to will diminish their power over us.
The Busyness Habit
Our world has become so focused on achievement that many of us keep ourselves continuously busy, almost on autopilot. We lose focus on the intention of our actions, and instead, we make the task the objective. Everything will be alright if I can just complete this piece of work or clean the house until it sparkles. We can stress ourselves out unnecessarily by trying to win approval for something of no consequence. Is it possible to have a healthy and happy family in a less-than-spotless house? Of course, it is. Reconnect with the feelings that are driving your busyness. Allow yourself to identify separately from the actions you perform.
The Role of Self-Care in Modifying Our Behavior
Our ability to be mindful is hampered when we don’t cater to our basic physical and societal needs. When we are hungry, tired, scared, or lonely, we are more prone to “knee-jerk” reactions. Ensuring that we are well-nourished and adequately refreshed daily is an essential first step in establishing a mindful existence.