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What To Expect When You’re Breaking A Mental Bad Habit

Last week we started our conversation about the “bad habit” component, called neuroplasticity, of depression, anxiety, intrusive thoughts, and obsessive or compulsive thoughts. This is, of course, only part of the picture. Neurotransmitter balance is a factor along with the often overlooked physical contributors to depression and other states.


We discussed three main methods for breaking mental bad habits. Those are:

  1. The Fantasy
  2. The Stop and Drop
  3. The Distraction
The stop and drop mindfulness technique can help you break mental bad habits like anxiety, depression, catastrophizing, ruminating, and obsessive thoughts.

When you’re first trying this, it can be really helpful to try all three strategies at different times to see what works the best for you. You’ll know it works when you are able to pop yourself out of your mental bad habit – to feel different in your body and to let go of whatever thought pattern it is that you’re working on.

Stages of Resolution With Mental Bad Habits

  1. Learning. In this phase, you’re actually learning to pay attention to your thoughts and that takes more time than you would think. You may find a particular “warning” signal for you – it could be a behavior (like when I’m starting to feel this way I always log on to Facebook and click links that make me angry or I start craving XYZ food. It could also be a physical feeling – a headache in a particular place, a clenching in your belly, pain in your neck or shoulders. It could also be something more subtle like tuning into your mood more frequently.
  2. Out of Control. This phase feels like you’re moving backward. You’ve started tuning in and now you’re actually noticing how much your brain does this thing and it’s a ton! It will seem like your brain is a wild horse racing ahead of you, and it feels like the bad habit is happening more, not less.  That is a GREAT sign because the reality is that you aren’t doing the bad thing more, you’re just noticing more and that is the first step to actually changing it. This can take a few months of diligent attention, but don’t get discouraged – you’re doing it and you’re making progress.
  3. Quietening. In this phase, you start to make tangible progress and you’ll notice that the mental bad habit becomes softer somehow. Quieter.  The thoughts/feelings are still there and they still affect you, but you’re learning to let them go more quickly and it’s easier not to get pulled in by them.
  4. Maintenance. This phase is amazing.  One day you’ll notice your mental bad habit pop up and the first thought you’ll have is “Oh! I haven’t seen that for a while.” and you’ll dismiss it and move on. This is the phase where you have the freedom to move on to something else because that bad habit is mostly gone.  It’s a good idea to still take proactive action when it pops up, but it is popping up so much less frequently that it becomes almost a curiosity when it’s there.
The fantasy - one of the best mental bad habit breakers there is. Tools for mindfulness.

Great! So I’ll be mentally healthy by next week, right?

Absolutely not. I would love to say it was easy and took no time or effort, but that would be a bald-faced lie. It’s a challenge and it takes time. You’ve probably had this mental bad habit for years if not for your entire adult life, so it will take some time to break it too. And some time doesn’t mean a couple of weeks, it means months and maybe even a year. This isn’t quick, but it is SO. WORTH. IT.

Does This Work Every Time?

This works every time if you stick with it, and when there isn’t some other major imbalance. If your serotonin is actually so low it’s living in the sub basement, then this will still help fix the habit part of it, but it won’t completely normalize the serotonin (but it will bring it up – research shows these techniques are associated with higher levels of both serotonin and melatonin). Although, every day we’re learning more about what this can actually accomplish.

What IS This Witchcraft? It’s Mindfulness.

Yup. That thing that hippies and new-agey types do. Also, everybody who studies neurology and neuroscience of any sort, because as it turns out the effects are so powerful as to be almost unbelievable.

Distraction can be a useful tool to break a mental bad habit, but you have to use it mindfully.

Among the many documented effects of any form of mindfulness are:

  • Increased wellbeing
  • Reduced cognitive reactivity (so external things don’t affect you so much)
  • Reduced inflammation
  • Reduced reactivity of the autonomic nervous system (you don’t get an adrenaline spike every time something bad happens)
  • Higher serotonin
  • Higher melatonin
  • increased telomerase activity (anti-aging)
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