Creatures of Habit

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It’s already March, and by this time many people have typically already abandoned their New Year’s resolutions. Why is it so difficult to stick to resolutions? It’s not easy even during an average year, but throwing in a pandemic and lockdown makes it even more challenging.

Thankfully, the Rio Grande Valley has licensed therapists to help everyone get back on track, break bad habits, and create healthy ones.

One mental health community clinic located in Brownsville offers counseling for individuals, families, couples, and groups both in person and virtually. Michelle Burkott, M.Ed., LPC-Supervisor, Sylvia Chelf, M.Ed., NCC, LPC, LCDC, and Nikole Gutierrez, M.Ed., NCC, LPC, LCDC, of New Leaf Counseling shared their insights on habit formation trends during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic as well as ways for locals to recover.

“We have seen an increase in certain trends since the start of the pandemic. Some of these trends include increase in substance abuse, unhealthy eating and sleeping patterns, decrease in physical activity, and lack of motivation, across all ages, socioeconomic status, and genders,” the team of therapists said.

What makes something a habit, and what makes it a good or bad habit?

Burkott, Chelf, and Gutierrez explained that a habit is a tendency to repeatedly engage in a specific action or behavior. “A habit can be something that is hard to give up, something done on a daily basis, and can cause certain emotions if one is not able to engage in their habit,” they said, mentioning that when life changes happen or during stressful periods of time, people can become vulnerable and more susceptible to unhealthy habit formation.

Some habits can be positive because they have healthy benefits. The therapists listed daily meditation, exercise, or a regular cup of green tea as examples. “Other habits can be negative that have negative consequences in one’s social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning, which are a cause for concern,” they said.

The three therapists explained that people often go to New Leaf Counseling or other mental health clinics because their habits and negative patterns keep them from being happy and successful — or from reaching their full potential. “Acknowledging and being aware of a bad habit is a start in the right direction,” the New Leaf team said. Knowing the reasons why a person engages in certain activities — and why they want to change the habit — is very important for being able to change their behavior. “What benefits will come from eliminating or reducing this habit? If this habit was eliminated, what would improve in their life and how would they feel?”

It’s after this point that the breakdown of bad habits can take place.

It can take a while for habits to form, so it makes sense that it takes a while for them to be broken, as well. “Sometimes breaking a bad habit is done by replacing it with a new healthy habit, such as when someone has an addiction to alcohol, one may leave this habit and replace the time they spent consuming alcohol with time in the gym,” Burkott, Chelf, and Gutierrez explained. “Some factors to take into consideration that may influence the amount of time it would take to change or eliminate a habit is the amount of time one has had this habit, environmental factors, support system or lack of, level of motivation, etc.”

The three therapists gave some helpful tips for staying on track to work toward better habits. These included advising their clients to make a daily log of when they engage in the habit they want to create as well as identifying the feelings or situations that trigger them to engage in their old, unhealthy habits. They explained that it’s important for people to work on changing their own mindsets and even rewarding themselves after successfully sticking to a habit for a certain timeframe.

“Try to take it one day at a time,” the team advised. “Being realistic with your expectations is important, as setting unrealistic or high expectations may create disappointment.”

Sometimes, a habit can become an addiction — whether or not typically addictive substances are involved. “Addiction can cause physical symptoms such as withdrawals for a drug/alcohol addiction or cause certain feelings such as irritability, anger, depression, and anxiety. Some other common addictions include but are not limited to gambling, sex addiction, shopping addictions, excessive exercise, and pornography. An individual should seek professional assistance if their concerns are causing significant distress or impairment in their social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.”

The New Leaf team left off with this final word of encouragement: “Changing habits is difficult but not impossible. Remember you are not alone, and many people struggle with changing habits. Surround yourself with a strong support system and seek professional help, if necessary.”