Is there a way to unlearn a bad habit?
Habit as the very word connotes means a settled practice that is hard to give up. Habits do not form suddenly in a single day but is developed over a long period of time. It is a learned behaviour
to the extent that one does something automatically without thinking. Habits are a chain reaction. As soon as some trigger is present the habitual response mechanically happens and the reward of the habit follows. To illustrate, if someone has the habit to smoke immediately after meals, he/she will reach for the cigarettes without even giving it a conscious thought, smoke (habit) and feel satisfied (reward). Hence, the longer the duration of a habit the harder it is to give up though it is not an impossible preposition.
As habit is a learned behaviour, to get rid of it, one has to focus to unlearn
it and relearn
a new behaviour to replace it. Unlearning is the process of discarding or putting aside something from oneâ€™s memory. The emphasis here is to break the cycle of trigger-habit-reward. One simple mechanism is extinguishing
the habit by consciously not indulging in it or removing the cues that lead to that behaviour. This requires identifying and removing triggers to be able to know which ones are maintaining the habit. Then substitute either a neutral or a good habit that gives you same or more rewards than the previous â€œbadâ€ one. To establish the new habit punish self by associating pain with the bad habit. This means that you actually punish self with some pain for breaking the good routine/habit that you are trying to relearn in lieu of the bad habit. Pain does not mean harming or injuring oneself physically.
This is a behaviour therapy method we use for many conditions like smoking, drug addictions, behavioural problems in children including temper tantrums, conduct disorders, oppositional defiance disorder to name a few. It is an efficacious method to change undesirable habits to more desirable ones.
Dr Vandana Prakash
Senior Consultant Clinical Psychologist
Fortis Hospital, Noida.