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Are you wondering why it’s taking so long for you to break a habit? Even one that’s damaging to your health, such as smoking, drinking; sugary and unhealthy foods?
The words ‘habit’ and ‘addiction’ are often interchanged, but the key difference between the two is that habits can be negative or positive- while addictions are only negative. Habits are essentially inbuilt loops in the brain, based on a sort of reward system where a particular routine will trigger a certain response in the brain. If the brain benefits from this response, then the habit will develop. Some examples include smoking a cigarette or having a glass of wine after a stressful day of work, to help you relax. The stress is the trigger, and the cigarette or glass of wine becomes the routine, based on the positive effect of it relaxing you.
A habit will become an addiction when the brain starts to believe that a harmful substance is beneficial rather than detrimental. This is because the brain rewires the bad habit to be considered an important part of your physiology, a necessity in the day-to-day routine. For example; feeling a need to have cigarettes to function day to day and feeling additional stress and anxiety when the option to smoke isn’t available.
Some studies say it can take around 21 days to break a habit. However, this is a fairly simplistic view of habits and addictions that fails to take into account the individual’s neuropeptide connections (molecules that influence brain activity) and the circumstances for developing a habit. The idea that all habits can be broken in 21 days is something of a myth, and any habits that become a substitute for something else, for example, smoking a cigarette to combat stress, can be very difficult to break without first resolving any underlying reasons for why the habit developed in the first place.
One of the easiest ways to try and break an addictive habit like smoking is to simply try and replace the old habit with a new one that doesn’t damage your body in the same way. This could be anything from chewing gum, to physical activity, to alternative forms of stress relief like yoga or meditation. If there is a specific routine in your day that leads to smoking (for example, going for a cigarette after lunch), try modifying these routines to take the addictive habit out of the picture.
Addictive habits are hardcoded into our brains, sometimes after months and months of routine, so it is completely understandable if they can take a while to break. But they’re not impossible to break! It’s better to focus on modifying the underlying circumstances that led to the habit, rather than on a specific time goal such as 21 days.
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