End Unwanted Habits

Most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time.

Townsend, D. J., & Bever, T. G. (2001)*.

A habit is any routine of behaviour, thinking or feeling that is repeated regularly and occurs unconsciously. Habits are the brain’s way of automating things that we do over and over again and lots of habits are useful. At one time, as a young child, you couldn’t walk and learning to do so took an enormous amount of physical and psychological effort. But now when you walk you don’t even have to give it a thought because all of the actions have become completely automated. Your pattern of walking is a habit – your body and unconscious mind get on with the process without you having to actively think about it. It’s the same thing for riding a bike, driving a car, brushing your teeth, putting on a seat belt or looking both ways when you cross the road. Unfortunately, there are some things that become habits that you then want to change. At this point a lot of people discover that habits don’t stop just because you want them to!

I am often amazed how clients give themselves a hard time about not being able to stop habitual behaviour on their own, as if it is somehow a personal failing or weakness; but of course it isn’t. The truth is human beings are wired to form habits that are resistant to change and without an understanding of the unconscious processes involved some habits can be extremely difficult to shift. There are four broad reasons why habits can be hard to change.

First, habits are unconscious. This means the behaviour can take place outside of awareness without you even realising you are doing it. For example, a nail biter may be able to resist biting their nails while they are concentrating on it, but when their attention is occupied elsewhere (like watching television) they bite their nails without even knowing they are doing it.

Second, where habits are performed in a consistent context, the unconscious associative learning system increases the automatic nature of the behaviour, making it more automatic and less controllable. For example, someone who always buys popcorn at the movie theatre might find themselves doing so even if they have just eaten a three-course meal.

Third, we are wired to do what is immediately more comfortable or pleasurable not necessarily what is best in the long term. For example, if you were taught as a child to always finish the food on your plate doing so will feel comfortable and leaving food behind might result in you feeling anxious or guilty. If you are overweight and trying to cut down on portion size your primary motivation system is going to be trying to make you finish all your food simply because this is what you have always done in the past, even though you ‘know’ you shouldn’t.

Fourth, sometimes the habit is being driven by an unconscious motivation or is resulting in some kind of benefit of which you might not be aware (this is called a secondary gain). For example, a careful investigation of a teenage client’s habit of hair pulling revealed that she was using the behaviour to get attention from her emotionally distant mother.

The right kind of help to end unwanted habits

Hypno-psychotherapy is an excellent approach to help you end unwanted habits. It addresses the problem directly at the level of the unconscious mind, so clients can often experience resolution to their habits very quickly, even where they have been struggling for many years. Some habits, though, do take longer to resolve; this can be especially true where the behaviour is meeting unconscious emotional needs. With almost twenty years of experience, I have successfully helped hundreds of clients to gain control over a wide range of unwanted habits. I draw on highly effective and established techniques from hypnotherapy, mindfulness, behavioural- and cognitive- therapies, Neuro-linguistic Programming (NLP) and stress management. Together, these combine to form a powerful set of tools to help you take back control of your behaviour. As all different sorts of habits are formed by essentially the same learning mechanism, pretty much any kind of habit can be stopped. These are the most common habits that clients come to see me for:

  • Nail biting
  • Hair pulling
  • Skin picking
  • Thumb sucking
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Grinding teeth
  • Swearing
  • Fidgeting
  • Watching television
  • Surfing the web
  • Playing computer games
  • Shopping
  • Smoking
  • Drinking alcohol
  • Over Eating
  • Binge eating

If you have any questions, if you would like a free chat on the phone, or if you would like to book an initial consultation, please get in touch and we can discuss how  I can help you.

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*Townsend, D. J., & Bever, T. G. (2001). Sentence comprehension: The integration of habits and rules. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Mark Witter

Mark Witter MA DHP PhD

A highly qualified and experienced hypno-psychotherapist, creating a safe, compassionate and professional environment to confidentially support your healing and personal development.

Find out more about Mark