"Old habits die hard" as the adage goes, and those that are destructive, unhealthy, or stress-inducing are sometimes the longest living. Unfortunately, a desire to change isn't always enough to stop the cycle. That's why many people turn to mental health professionals, like hypnotherapists and psychologists, who can teach them strategies on how break bad habits, for good. But first, what constitutes a "bad habit"?
In short: A bad habit is any behavior or thought process that negatively impacts your life. Marisa Peer, celebrity therapist, pioneering hypnotherapy trainer, and best-selling author of Ultimate Confidence, lists a myriad of issues that she helps clients address. This includes low self-confidence and self-esteem, relationship issues, money blocks, addictions, phobias, eating disorders, hoarding, shopping, and even unhealthy tendencies regarding screen time. Of course (and unsurprisingly), some of the most common concerns mental health professionals work to relieve pertain to stress and anxiety. Needless to say, if you've struggled with any of these issues (and really, who hasn't?), there are techniques you can practice to help eliminate stress, destructive behaviors, and negative associations.
Ahead, two hypnotists and a psychologist share their insights on how to break bad habits, step by step. From doing an introspective deep-dive to replacing undesirable thoughts and actions with positive ones, it's possible to live a more positive life (and no, it doesn't involve a swinging pocket watch).
Identify The Triggers Behind The Behaviors
Dr. Sam Maldonado Ph.D. LAC., CHt., APM., the president and CEO of Mental Wellness Center LLC, says the first step to eliminating a bad habit or undesired thought pattern is to identify its triggers. If the cause is unclear or deep-rooted (perhaps in the case of a phobia), hypnotherapy can help pinpoint it, especially if it's deeper than the conscious mind.
Here's how it works, according to one technique: "First, the therapist will call out the part [of the mind] that helps the person make the correct decisions," Dr. Maldonado describes. "Second, the therapist calls out the part of the subconscious mind that stores the behavior or habit that the person wants to eliminate. After this is done, the therapist takes that part of the person’s subconscious mind back to the origin of when the behavior or habit occurred."
Dr. Michael Gervais, a high-performance psychologist, co-founder of Compete To Create, and host of the Finding Mastery podcast, says there's evidence that hypnotherapy can be effective, but you can certainly do some self-discovery on your own. "Increase awareness of your relationship with your habits (the why) and the triggers for those habits (the when)," he suggests. "Mindful meditation is one practice for enhancing awareness, and has been highly effective in treating addiction and creating optimized habits of thought and action." He gives this example: "If you are an 'emotional eater,' first examine the thoughts or circumstances that trigger you to choose eating as a way to manage emotions. Depending on your level of personal awareness, this might be incredibly simple to do — or extremely elusive."
Reprogram Your Thought Patterns
Peer tells The Zoe Report how hypnotherapy can change destructive or habit-forming thought patterns. "The part of the mind known as the 'critical factor' that says, 'I can't speak in public,' or 'I can't resist sugar' is overridden by even better thoughts, such as 'I'm good at speaking in public,' or 'I'm indifferent to sugar,'" she says. "In hypnosis, the mind is able to send much better signals to the body, i.e., 'I love working out,' 'I'm really good at applying myself to my career,' 'I'm great with people, etc.'"
Dr. Gervais adds, "For every habit that you have, you’ve developed that habit through a process of pairing your thoughts with specific actions. Psychologically speaking, that’s called conditioning. The idea, then, is not to break a bad habit, but to develop new habits that are more optimized thoughts and actions." The eventual goal is to condition your brain to associate the thoughts or emotions behind your habit with another action or thought process.
Replace Undesirable Habits
"Every habit of action is run by a habit of thought; when you change the habit of thought that runs the habit of action, you will get permanent results," explains Peer. "For instance, if someone eats sugar or drinks alcohol when stressed, or bites their nails when they're anxious, and you persuade them to give up the habit, they may still be anxious. They may also miss the habit. In hypnosis, we first get rid of the thought that sugar makes you feel better or alcohol relaxes you, and once the habit of thought is gone, the habit of action is gone, too."
In other words, if you reach for a cigarette every time things get hectic, you'll associate cigarettes with stress relief (if that's what it provides). The next step will be to condition your brain to associate stress relief with a different behavior, like working out, inhaling essential oils, doing a two-minute breathing exercise, or heck, playing a round or two on your favorite word game app.
Real Talk: How Hypnotherapy Helped Me
One patient recounts seeing Dr. Maldonado to cope with a fear of flying and stress at work in anticipation of an upcoming business trip. While on the five-hour flight, "[I] focused on visualizing a calm place when I felt stressed," he says. Now, "whenever I become anxious about work, I think of the relaxing feeling I [was able to achieve] with the hypnotherapy. I think of my calm place as well as positive thoughts that were developed during my session with Dr. Sam, and this immediately puts me in a more functional and less stressful place in my mind."
"The hypnotherapy helps to put things in perspective and [allows me to] look at stressful situations more realistically and in a more positive light," he continues. "It assists me to focus in the here and now, and to keep present in my thinking. For example, for the flying, the strategies helped me not to go to the extreme and think the plane was going to crash. It helped me to cognitively think about the slim likelihood that a plane is going to crash and how safe it is to fly."