Using Mindfulness to Gain Freedom from Bad Habits

Finding Freedom to Choose Something Different

Bad habits are negative behaviors that are repeated, have become engrained and are hard to break. Most of us develop a bad habit at one point or another. Generally bad habits form to comfort ourselves.  A habit is a loop where there is a stressor or cue, a behavior and a reward. A main defining feature of a habit, is that it occurs automatically, with limited awareness. We find ourselves doing it automatically and without really choosing it. Therefore, increasing awareness of ones’ inner experience is powerful towards making change. Awareness plus an Action Plan are what will break the loop and allow freedom to choose something different.

First we must identify what the cue is. The cue can be anything such as a time of day, a difficult work task, a self critical thought, a problematic relationship or as simple as a TV show ending (and then we reach for the fridge). Second, we must identify what emotion is being triggered. Generally, if an unhealthy habit has been created, it has been driven by trying to find relief from a negative emotional state, such as boredom, overwhelm, anxiety or anger. The individual then engages in the habit behavior, such as over eating, nail biting, fidgeting, over spending, or procrastination. The unhealthy behavior brings pleasure or temporary relief, and thus the release of Dopamine, one of the main chemicals regulating the pleasure center of the brain. This feel good chemical reinforces the behavior, therefore creating a loop of repetition.

Since a habit is developed to try to escape from an unpleasant emotional state, the alternative is to not escape from it, and instead transform it. This is where mindfulness is powerful. Mindfulness means paying attention in the present moment. With mindfulness, the individual sinks into the unpleasant cue and emotion rather than trying to escape it. Using mindful techniques, the individual can develop the ability to transform the negative state and the habit is no longer needed, and the dopamine reward comes from a healthy and sustainable behavior.

Awareness – Use these daily as a preventative tool

  1. Daily Intention. Develop an intention for how you want to feel each day. Start each morning off by stating your intention to yourself, while brushing your teeth or driving to work. For example. “I am going to proceed through my day with a sense of calm.”
  2. Check in. Develop a daily practice of checking in with yourself throughout the day to bring greater awareness of your emotional and physical state. This act of noticing brings connection and allows the individual to feel grounded or settled, more in control, and move through the day from a conscious place.


  1. Perform the Bad Habit with Mindfulness and Curiosity. Stop and take notice of how the negative habit feels. Really notice how it feels to bite your nails – maybe a tense jaw, sharpness on your tongue and unpleasant taste; When you eat sugary snacks – maybe you notice the chemical taste or greasy feelings on your hands and mouth, and the unhealthy sugar rush to your body. This increased awareness may remove or decrease the positive feelings the behavior previously brought.

Action Plan – To use when you are going into habit mode and don’t want to

  1. STOP
    1. S – Stop and recognize the negative pattern is occurring. Recognize that your mind and body are telling you they need support NOW.
    2. T – Take 3 deep breathes and use self-calming words: “I’m bringing in calm. I’m safe. I’m softening.”
    3. O – Observe Inwards: Take a close look at the situation, thoughts and feelings, old pattern, old messages. Observe options of how to see the situation. Is it really that dire or catastrophic. Are you being overly self-critical.
    4. P – Proceed with a New Choice – Notice feeling more aware of your inner landscape, and having a more settled quality. What would be effective? Can I make a creative choice right now? What is my best choice?


“STOP” Adapted from Terry Fralich’s, The Five Core Skills of Mindfulness