There’s one habit that’s easy to give up- the previous year, meaning it’s written date. You just get used to writing it after dickering about for 3 months with 2009, relax for 9 months and then it’s time to change again! Why aren’t other habits so easy to break?
I think I’m well on my way to trichotillomania right now as I can’t seem to stop scratching my head! I got sunburnt about 6 weeks ago on the top of my head, making it itch and peel in tiny dandruffy flakes. Then it got burned again about 2 weeks later- and now I keep lightly scratching it. Lots of people have the “head-scratch” habit and I know mine isn’t too bad, because I scratch or rub so lightly it is a pleasant sort of tickle. Others scratch until scabs form and they scratch those off- ouchhh!!!
How to break habits, hmm…? [she says, scratching her head] Well, having a background in that sort of thing, I’d tell myself to first make doing the habit thing very noticeable. Now that wouldn’t be by scratching harder, because that would just make my scalp a gory mess! What I need to do is make the movement of my left hand up to do the scratching much more noticeable (so I say to my self “you daft bugga, that looks ridiculous, don’t do it!”). So maybe I will put a big awkward bangle or bunch of little jingle bells on my wrist?? Or maybe there is something else I can do to break the habit?
Perhaps I should force myself to type on the lappy with my left hand, so it’s occupied? That sounds good!
OK- maybe I’ll get sick of that. I need some alternatives for when I’m off the laptop (that can’t be a lot of the day, can it??). If I’m reading a book, perhaps I should hold it with my left hand? Maybe that would work- I’ll trial it. What about when I’m in the car waiting at the lights? Hmm…can’t really do anything that would interfere with driving- I’m outta clues on that one- any help out there, guys? I think I could safely keep my drink in my left hand when hanging about with friends, but I should wear a bangle to remind me of that one. Would there be any other occasion when I’d be filling my attention with the scratching? I know I should have a few more alternatiives. Meanwhile I’ll get on with the stuff I’ve listed and maybe that will take away the habit in all the other settings just by generalising- but I wouldn’t rely on it.
It’s now 40 years since I applied this strategy to breaking a habit for the first time! I hadn’t even studied psychology at the time, but a psychologist showed me how to do it without the fancy language. And it worked!
I was getting panic attacks while I was waiting for my school matriculation results- I think we finished exams at the end of October and we had to wait until the first week in January to receive the results in the mail. I had such a build-up of free-floating anxiety that it started to break through in all sorts of situations, much to my great alarm! I thought I was having a heart attack, my heart beat so fast! Anyway, I must have started to associate it with being in situations where I felt I couldn’t get away without making a huge “scene” because I started to panic at crowded swimming pools and beaches, in lifts and large rooms I hadn’t been inside before. I even started to panic in stairwells when there were other people going up and down- thinking I might trip and fall! When I went to enrol at university, I started to panic if I didn’t sit on the end of a row in lecture theatres- I was getting into a terrible lather!
So I trotted off to see the university counsellor. It was sooo simple- he taught me progressive relaxation, so I knew how great it was to feel relaxed. Then he started walking around the campus with me to places where I might have panicked- stairwells, banks, cafes, lifts and empty lecture theatres. He got me to describe how I felt and what I thought I would do in these situations. Then he’d get me to recall the feeling of relaxation and concentrate on getting that. As I was like everyone else who learns to panic inappropriately, naturally I found it very difficult to relax when I wanted to just hop into the Tardis and disappear! The alternative he taught me was to just go with the panic and make myself stay instead of walking out. We agreed that the feelings of panic were just physical things happening in my body and that they weren’t signs of a terrible illness- they were just feelings. Therefore it was OK if my heart wanted to go at a million miles an hour for a while, or if I hyperventilated or I broke out in a huge sweat- it would eventually stop and I’d be back to normal again, relaxing with the learned technique.
To cut a long story short, I mainly relied on “staying with it”. After all, I wasn’t going to run out of my first lectures and miss everything! What a waste of waiting for those fantastic results I achieved, getting me into med school at the top of the list! I was on the road to my dreams! So I stayed in those lifts and stairwells and lecture theatres and I let my stupid heart race, my palms sweat and my lungs over-exert themselves. I told them to behave themselves and stop bothering me. I told them they couldn’t hurt me; I was far too tough! And it worked. In a few weeks I had pretty good control, although I still hated the racing heart effect, but after 3 months I “suddenly” found that all the panics had gone away! What a relief- plus it gave me a feeling of victory over the automatic but inconvenient things my brain told my body to do on the basis of rumour!
Since that time I have been able to remain calm in most unexpected situations. When shit happens- eg. the photocopier catches fire or someone collapses, I just barge in and deal with it. I don’t hang about waiting to see how I feel about the situation- my feelings don’t matter to a fire or a person who has keeled over- I JUST DO IT!
So- I have to apply this knowledge to my head scratching behaviour. I may hit some obstacles when I try, but I know how to put extra strategies in place to overcome those. Right after this blog post, I will put something very noticeable on my left wrist and go for it!!
Pity I hadn’t learnt how to START a new GOOD habit all that time ago- I’m still struggling with myself about starting a regular exercise program. I’ve started and “failed” many times and I’m at a loss on what strategy to try next, except have someone else hold me accountable. But that involves a whole public health program, so it’s a little way off just yet! LOL!
NB. I am NOT a professional. There is some professional advice here.