Updated 13 January 2015

Break your bad habits

Your brain loves consistency – the good kind and the bad. Here’s how to shake five of your most vexing gremlins.


A friend offers you a smoke while you’re watching the game in a pub. You have one every now and then, and you’re not hooked, so sure, thanks. Besides, it does look good with your drink. This, my friend, is your brain battling a bad habit – and losing.

As we continually perform a behaviour – smoking socially, say, or SMSing while driving – neural pathways in our brains form new patterns, according to a recent MIT review. Once the prompt arrives, your brain shifts into autopilot.

“Situational cues bring out habits that are deeply embedded,” says research scientist Dr Ellen Peters, who studies risk perceptions. “When that habit surfaces, it’s hard not to let it overcome you.”

The problem, of course, is that these proclivities can endanger your health. So follow our guide to rid yourself, once and for all, of a few distinctly unhealthy habits.

A quick drag every now and then

While regular smokers have a chemical component fuelling their addiction, people who smoke only occasionally succumb mainly to social and environmental triggers. “The most powerful prompt is often being around other people who are smoking or drinking,” says Dr Michael Fiore, director of the University of Wisconsin Centre for Tobacco Research and Intervention.

In stressful situations, a cigarette can put you at ease: 10 minutes after you take a puff, your brain releases a surge of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that can make you feel relaxed and happy.

Why it’s bad Lighting up even a few times a week is still poisoning yourself. “There’s no lower limit of exposure to tobacco smoke that is safe. Period,” says Dr Richard Hurt, director of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Centre. In fact, a single cigarette can almost instantly injure the inner walls of your blood vessels. That damage can lead to heart disease and blood clots.

Looming in the background, of course, is also the risk of developing a full-blown addiction. Some research suggests that about a quarter of “occasional” smokers go full-time.

Break the habit When you can’t steer clear of the smokestacks, benign substitutes can work wonders, Hurt says. For instance, grab a cocktail stirrer and hold it between your fingers like a cigarette. Set it between your lips while you take out your wallet or phone. This keeps your mouth and hands busy. And carry nicotine gum or lozenges – these can mimic the effects of nicotine from cigarettes, Fiore says.

ReadFinding the best treatment for quitting smoking

Evening in front of the tube

Grabbing some snacks and firing up the plasma after work is okay once or twice a week. But every night? Yes, bad habit. “People who are under high levels of stress and who may not have a large network of friends are prone to isolating themselves after work,” says Dr Leonard Jason, a DePaul University psychologist who studies the challenges of breaking bad habits. “Eventually, it becomes their default.”

Why it’s bad Slumming it on the couch plays havoc with your body and your brain. For one thing, people can consume up to 71% more food while they’re glued to the tube, so it’s no surprise that watching more than 19 hours a week increases your odds of being overweight by 97%, according to a 2007 Belgian study.

And researchers at Case Western Reserve University found that for every hour of TV beyond 80 minutes that you watch daily, your risk of developing Alzheimer’s increases by a whopping 30%.

Break the habit If you have PVR, use it to record shows and simply start your descent to bedtime later in the evening,  Jason suggests. Zipping through the commercials can cut about half an hour off every two hours of couch time. Then, at least three times a week, make after-work plans that specifically involve people – meet friends for dinner or join a recreational sports team. “Finding alternatives that you can do with others helps reduce passive TV viewing,” Jason says.

Read: Break your bad habit

Your caffeine drip

The human body embraces some vices with gusto, effectively launching lifelong habits by punishing you for skipping even a single hit. That’s caffeine’s MO. When a caffeine fanatic doesn’t get that fix, blood flow in the brain spikes, according to a 2009 study in the journal Psychopharmacology.

This expansion of blood vessels results in a headache, while you suffer from symptoms such as fatigue and grumpiness. To avoid this, you visit the coffee shop or the office java pot. (Makes us wonder: why can’t fruits and vegetables hook us like this?)

Why it’s bad A constant infusion of caffeine can set your nerves on edge. “High daily caffeine intake may decrease hand steadiness and increase anxiety,” says Dr Russell Keast, a caffeine-consumption researcher at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University, in Australia.

Then there’s a 2007 study from Dartmouth medical school, which found that people who consumed 400mg of caffeine a day (about four cups of coffee) for a week experienced a 35% decrease in insulin sensitivity, which may increase the risk of diabetes.

Break the habit Start by keeping a food diary for a few days to identify all the sources of caffeine in your diet – fizzy drinks, coffee, tea, energy drinks – and tally the total milligrams you’re consuming, says Dr Chad Reissig, a researcher at Johns Hopkins University who studies the behavioural effects of caffeine. (Consult beverage manufacturer websites for the actual amounts.)

Then reduce your caffeine intake by about 10%. This could be as simple as drinking a 330ml can instead of 500ml bottle. “You can also mix decaf with your cup of full-strength coffee and slowly increase the ratio,” says Reissig. Keep dialling back by 10% every few days until your craving subsides.

The gradual reduction should minimise fatigue and headaches, but plan for them anyway: go to bed earlier to keep drowsiness at bay, Reissig advises, and carry painkillers to treat brain pain.

Cranking the tunes

This habit sneaks up on you: you listen to your music through your headphones at a higher volume than you should a few times and your ears become accustomed to it. Then you play it at that level all the time. Eventually, you max out the volume controls on the iPod.

“It’s possible to quickly adapt and become accustomed to louder and louder sounds without realising it,” says Robert Fifer, the director of audiology and speech-language pathology at the University of Miami’s Mailman Centre for Child Development.

Why it’s bad Blasting Nickelback at full volume through earphones for long intervals can cause permanent hearing damage, because your body lacks a self-defence mechanism for loud noise. While you won’t feel pain in your ears until the volume exceeds 120 decibels, the damage can begin earlier than that.

The cells in your inner ear that process sound begin working overtime to keep up with the onslaught and eventually die off under stress, says Fifer. The fewer of these cells you have, the more difficult it becomes to hear soft sounds. You may also experience a constant ringing in your ears, called tinnitus.

ReadIPod generation risks hearing loss

Break the habit You have to retrain your brain to perceive lower volume levels as normal and to automatically tune out background noise. Start by turning down the volume on your iPod or car’s sound system until you can hear other people talking to you – they shouldn’t have to shout.

“If you force yourself to listen to music at a lower level, your brain will begin to perceive it as normal after about a week,” says Dr Catherine Palmer, the director of audiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre Eye and Ear Institute. Also, think about using earphones that block out external noise and music diluters, and that reduce your music player’s maximum volume.

Talking and SMSing while driving

We keep doing this because while we intuitively know that the combination is unsafe, we assume nothing would ever happen to us. “If you do it once and nothing happens, your experience tells you that it’s okay,” says Peters. “Those repeated safe experiences build up a sense of invulnerability.”

Why it’s bad The hard reality is that our habit of talking and SMSing while driving, which springs from our still-bubbling enthusiasm for our mobile devices, conflicts directly with proof that we suck at it.

Look no further than the September 2008 train crash in Los Angeles that killed 25 people; a commuter train’s engineer had just sent a text message before the collision with a freight train. Even having a hands-free cellphone conversation while driving slows your reaction time by more than 20%, a French study found.

Break the habit Switching your cellphone to silent when you step in the car is an easy, effective fix. But many people forget to do that or they forget to turn the sound on again, so a better strategy is to train yourself to not want to pick up the phone.

“You can teach yourself to have a negative emotional association with cellphone use while driving,” Peters says. When your phone rings or beeps with a new message, visualise what could happen if your attention is distracted – picture yourself plowing into the car ahead of you.

Be graphic about it. Then imagine the effect that an accident would have on your family and on the family of the person you hit. Over time, you’ll start associating the ringing cellphone with a crash, and you’ll have less desire to answer it.

Read more

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Set a good habit in stone
10 nasty gym habits



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