By Cynthia Hanson for Life & Beauty Weekly


You know you’re not supposed to nibble your nails or visit the vending machine every afternoon, but it’s hard to break bad habits when you’re under stress. What gives?

“We’re most vulnerable when we’re stressed because our defences are weakened, so it’s easy and natural for us to revert to our old ways of behaving,” says Linda Allan, a Toronto-based certified management consultant with a degree in psychology and a master of education who specializes in behaviours.

Good news: It’s easier to break bad habits than you may think! You may not choose to feel stressed or unhappy, but you do have a choice when it comes to dealing with those feelings. As you prepare for the new year and the resolutions that come with it, try this four-step plan:

1. Commit to change.
“Bad habits hold us hostage and keep us from doing our best work and from being our best,” says Allan. “If we’re anxious to improve ourselves but unwilling to change ourselves, we’ll remain tied to those habits and to being less than we can be.” It’s one thing to want lovely nails, but you really, really have to want to kick the habit in order to stop biting them. Once you make that decision, you’ve got to stay focused on the end result—a beautiful manicure—for as long as it takes to break the negative pattern.

2. Look at your routines.
Most stress-related habits are ritualistic: They’re structured around a specific situation and a specific time. To break bad habits, pay attention to them and note when and why they happen. Maybe you reach for a cigarette right after meals or crave cookies during tense times at work. If you realize when you’re more likely to continue the bad habit, it’ll be easier to notice and stop yourself from doing it.

3. Substitute with a better behaviour.
“Behaviours arise from cause and effect,” says Allan. “If we concentrate only on the effect without considering the emotional underpinnings that cause us to behave that way, we’ll be forever bound in a cycle of attempting but failing.” Once you know when you’re most likely to slip into a bad habit, find a healthier outlet for your feelings. Reach for a piece of fruit or cheese when your midday candy cravings hit. Keep a stress ball or worry beads at your desk to stop you from slouching or picking at your cuticles. Call a friend and vent before you hit the mall for some retail therapy.

4. Think positively before bed.
“Scientific evidence has shown that during sleep, our brain is capable of focusing on whatever we focus on as we fall asleep,” says Allan. “Positive thoughts are absorbed by the brain and generate positive energy, while negative thoughts generate negative energy.” Try this exercise to ensure you have sweet dreams and break bad habits: Write a sentence about the change you want to make, but word it as if the change already is a reality (e.g., I’m losing weight, I drink less coffee, I keep my paperwork in order). Then repeat it out loud four times just before you fall asleep. “It is our thoughts that generate our feelings, and our feelings generate our actions,” Allan says.

Finally, don’t sweat it if you slip back into old ways on your journey to nice nails and thinner thighs. After all, experts say it takes 21 days of repetition to break bad habits. “As the saying goes, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.’ We’re only human and any habit takes time to break, so it’s important to be gentle on ourselves as we embark on that journey to change.”

Cynthia Hanson is a journalist who writes for many national publications, including Ladies’ Home Journal, Parents and American BabyShe is a frequent contributor to Life & Beauty Weekly.

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