The #1 Question to Ask Yourself to Break Bad Habits

  • By Jennifer Mulder
  • 3 January 2022
  • 9 minute read
The #1 Question to Ask Yourself to Break Bad Habits | The Health Sessions

When you’re living with chronic illness like diabetes, heart problems or Crohns disease, it’s more important than ever to have a healthy lifestyle. Eating a balanced diet, moving your body and managing stress well can all help you deal better with painful symptoms or prevent worsening of your health condition.

It’s no secret that smoking, drinking too much alcohol and eating lots of fried foods can cause serious health problems over time. And yet, it can be very hard to break these bad habits.

By nature, habits are the behaviors you do automatically, without thinking much about it. After a tiring, frustrating day, you light a cigarette, poor yourself a glass of wine or curl up on the couch to binge-watch your favorite series. When you perform these actions regularly following stressful events, you’ll notice that stress will automatically trigger a craving to smoke, drink or lose yourself in a fantasy world.

Countless of helpful books have been written about how to break bad habits and create healthier new ones. But one aspect of changing automatic behaviors has not received the attention it deserves. If you want to break bad habits, here’s the #1 question you should ask yourself: 

What is my motivation for turning to those bad habits? Which underlying emotional needs am I trying to fulfill?

Because performing bad habits is more than just giving into a craving. Something inside you triggers your desire for sweet and salty snacks or that cold beer. That trigger can be a social situation in which you’re used to doing that behavior, like having popcorn at the cinema or cocktails on nights out. But all too often, your emotions also play a (big) role in sparking cravings. Who hasn’t reached for the cookie jar when feeling blue?

Let’s take a closer look at how your emotions evoke bad habits, and how you can fulfill these underlying needs in a healthier way.

Disclaimer: If you’re concerned your bad habits could be symptoms of addiction, eating disorders, depression or anxiety, please contact your doctor or medical professionals for the real-life, personalized help you deserve. You don’t have to do it alone. 

The #1 Question to Ask Yourself to Break Bad Habits | The Health Sessions
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5 Common Underlying Emotions of Bad Habits

Emotions give you important signals about the world around you and spur you to take action. For example, fear warns you about physical or psychological threats, so you can protect yourself against harm. That signaling function of fear, anger and sadness comes in handy to avoid snakes and spiders or to fight off rivals, but in our modern-day life, you can’t always act immediately to fix the situation.

When you feel desperate and frustrated for missing out on life due to chronic illness or guilty towards your kids, there is no easy solution. And so these emotions linger on, making you feel miserable. That’s why it’s so tempting to push negative feelings aside by late-night snacking, having one too many beers and other addictive behaviors.

Most of us turn to these bad habits unconsciously, not fully aware of our motivations and which underlying emotions we’re actually trying to ease. But when you pay attention to what you’re feeling, you can start to choose healthier, more constructive responses.

Here are some common underlying emotions, and healthier alternatives for bad habits. 

1. Sadness

It’s become a classic movie scene: eating a bowl of ice cream when your heart’s broken or drinking your sorrows away. We’ve all done it, and that’s ok – on occasion. But when your default mode becomes problematic, remember there are better ways to cope with sadness.

Simply allow yourself to be sad and cry if you feel like it. Sometimes, releasing your feelings is all you need to feel relief. If you experience a more lingering kind of sadness, some form of self-expression can help, from journaling to dancing your heart out. Moving your body, heading into nature and working with your hands are also science-backed strategies to boost your mood.

What’s more, see if you can take the source of your sorrows away. With a little out-of-the-box thinking, you may be able to solve your problems, even though that’ll probably take time. If there’s little you can do about your situation, try if changing your negative thinking patterns or learning to accept your new reality helps you feel better.

If your sadness takes on more serious forms, please reach out for professional help to prevent or treat depression. You are not alone.

The #1 Question to Ask Yourself to Break Bad Habits | The Health Sessions
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2. Boredom

How many of us unconsciously munch on potato chips or popcorn to stimulate our brain? Boredom is a surprisingly common reason for unhealthy eating and drinking. And I get it, being stuck at home without anything fun going on can be mind numbing, depressing and even hurt your health.

That’s why I believe entertaining yourself when you’re chronically ill isn’t a luxury, but a meaningful coping strategy. But there are much better ways to keep boredom at bay than mindless snacking while online shopping for things you don’t need.

Depending on your health and living situation, you can dig up that giant jigsaw puzzle from the basement, discover an exotic cuisine, make yourself a health-boosting hot drink, take a virtual exercise class or go on an armchair journey. For more ideas, download my free Bored and Sick Guide with 130 fun things to do to beat the boredom.

Yes, these activities require a little more effort than opening a big of chips and turning on the TV, but you’ll break the negative spiral you’re in and you’ll feel better afterwards, promise.

3. Anxiety and Restlessness

Can’t stop checking your phone or or got a strong urge to smoke? When you’re stressed and anxious, your mind and hands want something to do, to deal with the restlessness and to regain a feeling of control. That’s why it’s so tempting to light a cigarette or keep scrolling through your social media feeds after a stressful day at work.

Obviously, the best thing to do is to lower your stress levels, calm your overall anxiety, and stop worrying too much. But what can you do to deal with anxiety and restlessness in a healthier way when it inevitably does occur?

Research shows that working with your hands relieves stress and anxiety, while helping you work through your problems. You can do any hands-on activity you like, from coloring and knitting to kneading dough and wood work. Stress balls, fidget items or anxiety bracelets are also common practices to cope with restlessness.

Going for a run or gentle walk, preferably in nature, is another effective way to calm your body and clear your mind. Relaxation techniques like meditation and the 4-7-8 breathing exercise also relieve stress and anxiety. Finally, minding your mental diet will help to reduce worrying and overwhelm in the long run.

The #1 Question to Ask Yourself to Break Bad Habits | The Health Sessions
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4. Anger and Frustration

Ever feel like downing a shot of liquor when anger is boiling up inside after a really frustrating day?

Anger is a natural emotion that urges you to stand up for your rights and fight for what you believe in. But sadly, uncontrolled anger, aggression and substance abuse are closely intertwined. Not only does addiction often lead to violence, but people also turn to alcohol and drugs to cope with feelings of anger and frustration.

Fortunately, there are healthier ways to keep your temper in check. If you find yourself holding imaginary arguments, try to take a time-out. Step away from the (mental) situation and take a deep breath. You can even use humor to ease tension. Think before your act and find more constructive ways to express yourself, like journaling. Having a ‘coping box’ with calming things, like relaxing scents, soft music or meaningful quotes, also lets you blow off steam in a controlled manner.

If you tend to hold grudges and blame others for your problems (no matter if that’s justified or not), it could be helpful to write down 3 positive things that happened each day. Anger can narrow your vision on life, so you don’t notice the good stuff that’s happening – or even misinterpret them. Doing loving-kindness mediations can also help you let go of grievances and forgive others for their mistakes. After all, forgiveness doesn’t make it OK that someone has hurt you – it just frees you of anger and resentment so you can move on with your life.

If you’re worried about unchecked anger or additive behaviors, please contact your doctor for help.

5. Loneliness

When it feels like there’s no one around who understands what you’re going through, it’s easy to look for comfort in food or excessive gaming. But that only pushes your pain away for a short while.

There are different kinds of loneliness, with different approaches. If you don’t have many people in your life, see if you can make new friends. I know, easier said than done, but try to reach out to neighbors and acquaintances, be social on social media (safely!), join an online book group or a virtual pub quiz.

When you’re suffering from emotional loneliness – the lack of deep, meaningful relationships with the people who are in your life – look for people who do understand what you’re going through, through online communities or local support groups. Adopting a pet – if you’re physically well enough to care for them – also brings you companionship and joy in life.

These aren’t instant solutions for that hollow, aching feeling that makes you want to binge-watch your favorite series while eating all the cake. If you feel like there’s no one you can call when you need a chat, maybe expressing your feelings and struggles through creative writing, intuitive dancing or singing can provide some much-needed release. Take yourself on a solo date for some major self-care: go for a bike ride, visit an (online) museum, wander through a book shop, treat yourself to a spa day at home or start an exciting project or hobby. This won’t instantly fix your loneliness, but it’ll provide some positive distractions.

The 1 Question to Ask Yourself to Break Bad Habits | The Health Sessions
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Conclusion

It’s hard to break bad habits like drinking, smoking and overeating without asking yourself the #1 question: Which underlying emotional needs am I trying to fulfill? Because once you become aware of your triggers and automatic responses, you can start to chose healthier ways to meet your emotional needs, and break your bad habits for good.

What is your common underlying motivation for turning to bad habits? 

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