So Long, Dear Habit

posted by Pilar Gerasimo 04/14/2010 0 comments

I was blown away by the many comments folks posted (from positive to downright peeved) in response to my previous blog, “Why I Do Not Dig Diet Soda.” Thank you for those!

One comment that especially moved me was from Annette, who wrote:

“But how do you stop something you have been doing for decades? I drink at least six to eight diet cokes a day. If I don’t have any in the fridge, I panic. I have extreme depression. I’m sorry but water is a very poor substitute for caffeine, even though I try.”

Annette, because I sense you speak for many (I’m guessing many millions), I’m going to respond to you here.

Obviously, it’s not a short or simple answer, but there are a few suggestions I’ll offer up . . .

First, realize that there are two different aspects to this challenge: One is dealing with the physical habit — an addiction to the caffeine, for example. The other is dealing with the psycho-emotional habit, which is no less intense and can provoke all kinds of very real secondary biochemical and neurological reactions.

For example, there’s the anxiety you describe, which can be accompanied by rushes of adrenaline and cortisol. And after decades of drinking diet soda on a daily basis, there are probably also some very well-worn synaptic patterns in your brain that make it hard for you to stop thinking about and wanting soda at various points in your day.

And then there are the feelings — sadness or depression at letting go of something that has been a daily companion of sorts (and probably a source of comfort or pleasure) for a long time.

If you do decide to cut back on your diet soda intake, or cut it out entirely, you’ll have to deal with all these bad boys. The good news is, you can absolutely do it if you choose to, particularly if you give yourself some good support for that choice — and you’ll probably make all kinds of interesting discoveries and harvest all kinds of new and exciting energy in the process.

The key, I think, is seeing the habit as an opportunity for personal exploration, not as a “bad thing” that you need to fix. It can also help to see the habits as a symptom (of an imbalance, say, or an unexamined challenge or unmet need) and not the root problem.

I remember a time, in my early 20s, when I had a weird fast-food habit going: Chicken sandwich, fries and diet soda from the drive-through.

I didn’t eat it every day, but I ate it several times a week, and I only liked eating it at home in front of the TV. It was a total numb-out strategy, and it worked — but it left me feeling rotten about myself and kind of disgusted. I knew it was awful for me, and at some point, I decided I really wanted to stop.

Breaking that habit involved making a number of adjustments, including exploring what I was trying to numb (anxiety, loneliness, uncertainty about what I wanted to do with my life) and noticing my triggers (being stressed or bored; being on the verge of doing something scary/exciting; seeing advertisements for fast food, etc.).

It also involved finding other places to put my nervous, unsettled energy (taking walks; decluttering my closet and drawers; putting my papers in order), and doing some journaling about how I wanted to live and be.

Most important, perhaps, it involved adopting an experimental mindset:

  • What if I go get fast food, but instead of driving through and bringing it home, I eat it at the restaurant? (I had a horror of that, it turned out, and realizing it wasn’t something I wanted to do in public or around other people made me realize just how “off” it really was for me, which gave me more motivation to change.)
  • What if I just refuse to watch TV for a week? (OMG, the feelings that came up! Pain, bargaining, anger — the whole nine yards.)
  • What if I watch TV but don’t eat? (Still numbing, but a totally different effect — left me more aware of what a waste of time it was.)
  • What if, when I feel a craving come on, I eat something healthy — like a salad, or an orange I slowly peel and section? (This usually satisfied me and left me feeling empowered and good about myself, leading me to turn off the TV and go do something else.)
  • What if I just sit here with my feelings (scary, but surprisingly transformative — I ended up journaling about it a lot and reading a lot of self-help books), or if I channel my energy into doing something I’m a little scared to do, like make job-search phone calls? (Eek! I realized I was terrified I might get an actual interview and that I was hiding out in a big way.)
  • What, if I were living my ideal life, would I be doing instead of sitting here watching TV and eating fast food, both of which make me feel lousy? And what’s preventing me from doing that?

That last question helped me get clear about a lot of things, some of which eventually led me to develop far healthier behaviors, get some counseling, take some risks, explore some beliefs, set some boundaries, establish a vision and goals for myself, and connect to a deeper sense of hope and spiritual faith, all of which, collectively, led me to what I’m doing today.

I still remember that vaguely desperate feeling, though, of knowing I was doing something that wasn’t right for me and wondering, “How will I change this?”

It’s a feeling I’ve encountered in plenty of other situations over the past 20 years, and I imagine it’s a feeling I’ll continue to encounter, at intervals, for the rest of my life.

Today, though, I see that question as exhilarating, not terrifying. I tend to hear it as an invitation to a better life, a better part of myself — another round of experiments that will help me more fully discover who I am and what I’m here to do.

Anyway, I don’t know if any of that helps or makes any sense to you. Every person’s change challenge is different, of course. And at the same time, they also have a lot in common.

If you want some help wrapping your head around the whole change-challenge conundrum, you might listen to my interview with Chip Heath, PhD, coauthor of the new bestseller Switch: How to Make Change When Change Is Hard (available free in our podcast section). Or pick up the book, which is terrific (we’ll be featuring an excerpt in our July issue).

In my next blog post, I’ll offer some practical suggestions for how you might apply the “Switch” methodology to a soda habit (and really, any kind of habit). In the meantime, thank you so much for your question, Annette. If you do decide to cut back on soda, let us know how it goes!

And to all the folks who have been through the kind of change challenge Annette describes, I’d love to know what worked for you.

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