One of the most important things you can do in recovery is develop habits that promote good physical and mental health and a heightened sense of well-being. But developing good habits takes hard work, and it requires doing away with old, unhealthy habits. Even through the hard work, though, the benefits are immeasurable.
According to the National Institutes of Health, understanding how we develop unhealthy habits and routines can help us break those habits and rework our routines, leading to meaningful and permanent lifestyle changes.
How We Develop Bad Habits
Unhealthy habits and routines develop in part through repetition and in part through the function of the brain’s natural reward centers.
Repeating the same actions over and over forms neural pathways that enable us to perform certain functions without giving them much conscious thought, such as hygiene routines and driving the same route every day. These become almost automatic, and the same principle applies to unhealthy habits.
Some enjoyable activities become habit when they trigger the reward centers in the brain and cause the release of the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine. This dopamine release reinforces the habit by causing cravings for it. This is true with unhealthy habits like drug, alcohol, or nicotine abuse as well as healthier ones like exercising.
Out With the Old and In With the New
Good and bad habits develop in the same way, and creating new, healthier habits in recovery is largely a fourfold process:
Exercise self-control in small ways. Self-control is like a muscle – exercising your willpower strengthens it. But the muscle can get tired. If you use all of your willpower to resist the temptation to engage in a bad habit, it can be temporarily exhausted, making it more difficult to resist the habit again a little later.
Exercising that willpower muscle involves engaging in a number of smaller shows of willpower, such as flossing your teeth and writing in your journal every day. The willpower “muscle” will become stronger in general, making it easier to successfully exercise it for combating more important – and harmful – habits.
Be mindful. The more aware you are of your bad habits, the better you can develop strategies for reducing their power over you. For example, if you eat loads of sugar every night, noticing the circumstances that make you crave it, such as boredom or stress, can help you combat the habit by engaging in an activity that prevents boredom or meditating to relieve stress before it triggers the desire to engage in the bad habit.
More Ways to Establish Healthy Habits
Actively replace old habits with new ones. Replacing old habits with new ones comes easier to some than to others, but starting small can lead to big benefits down the road. Instead of reaching for the Milk Duds every night, reach for the grapes. Instead of reaching for the bottle, reach for the running shoes.
Visualize how you’ll cope with cravings. Visualizing ahead of time how you will cope with the strong desire to engage in an unhealthy habit is a powerful tool for helping you put those coping skills into action when the time comes. Walk yourself through the whole process of reaching for the grapes instead of the Milk Duds or the running shoes instead of the bottle, and imagine the pleasure you will feel when you successfully do so. When the time comes, you will be more prepared to follow through with the good habit.
The Best Habits to Form in Recovery: Sleep, a Healthy Diet, and Exercise
It’s well documented that adequate sleep, a healthy diet, and regular exercise are three of the most powerful lifestyle changes that will lead to overall good health and mental resolve in recovery. The nonprofit organization, HelpGuide, notes that these healthy habits help to reduce stress and improve cognitive function to help you remain strong in the face intense drug or alcohol cravings. Developing healthy sleeping, eating, and exercise habits is a matter of mindfully using the four strategies above and making other changes in your life to facilitate the replacement of bad habits with those that are healthy.
There are endless ways you can help improve your chances of successfully replacing bad habits with good, including these four examples:
- Adopt a dog – Dogs need daily walking, and walking is good exercise.
- Set meaningful goals– Have something to work toward such as losing weight, learning how to lucid dream, or running a 10k or half-marathon – to keep your mind focused on positive habits.
- Make a list of your favorite healthy foods – Keep the list with you, and stock up at the store so that you always have healthy food on hand that you will enjoy eating.
- Set a luxurious evening routine to promote better sleep – Follow an evening dog walk with a relaxing bath with aromatherapy oils, and then settle in with a good book, your sketchbook, or another screen-free activity to induce relaxation and sleepiness.
A major key to relapse prevention and overall good health is to fill your life with healthy and rewarding activities that will provide a sense of purpose and promote feelings of self-worth and wellbeing. In doing so, bad habits will lose their appeal, and you’ll be well on the road to successful long-term recovery.