The Times Online – Max Kirsten: how to give up bad habits

The Times Online - Max Kirsten: how to give up bad habits

When the world as you know it seems to be disintegrating, it’s normal to reach out for a quick comfort hit. Sadly, many of us choose distractions that give us more to worry about in the long term. Cigarettes, the extra glass of wine, the multipack of crisps, the shopping trip that we can’t afford, recreational drugs – they may offer temporary respite from our anxieties, but they won’t take them away.

I’m not a puritan. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of wine or having a day at the sales if you can afford it. But if this kind of comfort-seeking is becoming habitual and compulsive, you need to find positive strategies to deal with the challenges that you face – ones that won’t leave you with a headache, bloated with saturated fat or full of panic because you’ve just spent the mortgage payment.

I am eminently qualified to advise on this. I used to think that if I had some external help, my uncomfortable feelings would go away – and I’ve overcome many addictions, including shopping and cigarettes. This page is designed to support people who overuse coping strategies, but if smoking, overeating, drug-taking or shopping – or any other destructive habit – has become a dominant part of your life and is damaging you and those around you, seek help from an addiction specialist or support from a self-help group.

With therapy I came to understand that you can find inner resources to deal with anxiety. To do that you need to take back control, first by identifying your feelings and working out what is really going on around you, rather than focusing on what you perceive to be happening.

The difficulty is that when we look within ourselves we tend to see turmoil. By using the exercises I’ve given you this week regularly – there’s another one on this page – you can dissolve negative feelings and find strength and resilience. You may not be in your comfort zone, but if you see yourself as a survivor and take small steps forward every day, you will get through this challenging period.

Once you begin to regard yourself as proactive rather than as a victim, you will start to feel more relaxed and better able to cope without resorting to an unhealthy fix. You can then begin to replace old habits with healthy ones.

Create a stress protection bubble

Take a long, deep breath and hold it for a moment. As you exhale, relax, close your eyes and focus inwards.

Remember a time and a place where you felt completely safe and secure. If you can’t, imagine such a place. See yourself cocooned there and notice the warmth, the colours, the smells, the soothing sound – and how much calmer you feel.

Then allow this memory to surround you so that it becomes transparent and spherical, as though you are standing in a bubble that contains your safe memory. It’s all around; you are protected by it. You can see out but nothing from outside can get in.

Take a deep breath in. Stretch up inside it as you hold the breath, hang on to the breath for a moment, and notice how your held breath feels good – and how releasing it calms you down. Then, as you breathe out slowly and open your eyes, notice where you really are; but that each time you half-close your eyes, you see that safety bubble around you still.

Think simple

Last year, the government think-tank Foresight published a Mental Capital and Wellbeing report, compiled by more than 400 scientists, which confirmed that simple activities such as gardening or mending a bicycle can protect mental health and help people to lead more fulfilled and productive lives.

So think simple. The next time you feel the urge to reach for an unhealthy prop, go for a walk or a swim instead, get on your bike, do some gardening, make a telephone call to a friend, cook a healthy meal, read a book, watch a favourite film (without popcorn) or listen to music that you find uplifting.

Shift your focus to something that you enjoy and that isn’t self-destructive, be active, get involved with others.