Bad habits proliferate during pandemic

by Ruth Griffiths

Researchers at University of Saskatchewan report that during the first four months of the pandemic students ate more, exercised less and consumed a lot of alcohol. Many people I know also fell into those unhealthy behaviours during 2020. Now it is time to change for the better.

It’s all too easy to identify unhealthy habits. It’s a little harder to figure out why we continue those behaviours.

The New Year is a traditional time to resolve to make positive change. But this has definitely not been a normal year. Nevertheless, you may be trying to undo the negative effects of some of your maladaptive behaviours.

After you have made your plan to change a habit, you need to identify what triggers your behaviour. For smoking, for example, triggers might include waking up in the morning, having coffee, drinking alcohol, stressful meetings, driving, etc. Most habits have more than one trigger. Make a list of all the triggers you can think of, no matter how large or small.

For every trigger, identify a positive action that you are going to do instead. When you first wake in the morning, instead of smoking, what will you do? What about when you get stressed? When you watch TV? Some positive actions to deal with your triggers could include: exercise, meditation, deep breathing or organizing your day.

Identifying your triggers and planning a positive action will give you strategies to defeat the urge. Urges are going to come — they’re inevitable, and they’re strong. But they’re also temporary and beatable. Urges usually last about a minute or two, and they come in waves of varying strength. You just need to ride out the wave, and the urge will go away.

For example, if you are trying to stop snacking after supper, some strategies for making it through the urge are deep breathing, take a walk, exercise, drink a glass of water, call a support buddy.

You have identified the habit you wish to change and written down your plan. It includes the triggers for that habit and the behaviours you are going to substitute. Be very clear why you’re doing this. If you are not doing it for yourself, is this something you really want to do? The benefits of changing this habit need to be clear in your head. For example, a friend successfully lost over 20 pounds because she was going to have knee surgery. She knew her recovering time would be much shorter if she were carrying less weight on her new knee.

Write down all your obstacles. If you’ve tried this habit change before, you’ve likely failed. How did those failures stop you from succeeding? Write down your plan to overcome every obstacle you can think of. Be prepared by finding solutions to your obstacles before you encounter them.

Of course, don’t try to change everything at once. Choose one behaviour that can be improved and be patient. It takes at least six weeks to change a habit.

The pandemic has given many of us the gift of time. We can choose to use this time to identify and implement healthier habits.