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With Help, You Can Break a Bad Habit

Whether it's a minor habit like biting your nails or a more serious one, like habitual drinking, stopping a damaging or bothersome behavior is difficult. With a little hard work and strategy, however, it's possible to break a bad habit.

One approach is called the transtheoretical model, and it can help you break habits by following specific strategies at certain points in your transition. Developed by psychologist James Prochaska in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this system shows you how to restructure your thought processes and make a permanent change for the better.

Think of the transtheoretical approach to breaking a bad habit as a 6-step journey you'll need to complete. Here are the 6 steps:

1. Precontemplation

In the precontemplation phase, you have no intention of changing your behavior in the foreseeable future. Most people in this stage have little awareness of their problems. Your friends and family may be aware of the issue, and they may attempt to talk with you about it. Smokers, for example, would continue to smoke cigarettes without any effort to cut down. This is the time to try a strategy known as "consciousness raising."

2. Contemplation

Contemplation is the stage at which you become aware that you have a problem and are seriously thinking about overcoming it, but you have not yet made a commitment to take action. Contemplators struggle with the pros and cons of taking action to break a bad habit. Don't be surprised if you suddenly start to think about all the drawbacks of changing during this stage. If you want to lose weight, for example, you might start thinking about negatives like the high cost of a gym membership or all the time it will take to make healthier meals. People often remain in the contemplation stage for years! To move ahead, try some "self-reevaluation" — picture yourself both with and without your bad habit. If overeating is the bad habit you want to break, see yourself as overweight and then imagine yourself as slim and fit.

3. Preparation

You're almost ready! People in the preparation stage plan to take action within the next month. Most people in preparation have an idea of the strategies they are going to use to break their bad habit. A person suffering from alcoholism may have identified a specific support group to attend; someone struggling with drugs might have chosen a treatment facility. 

4. Action

At this point, you're taking definitive action to break your bad habit. You may be actively following a weight-loss program, undergoing treatment by a doctor, or trying another strategy. Note, however, that only proven strategies count as action. For example, people who are quitting smoking are not in the action stage if they're only cutting back on their cigarettes. While you're in this stage, one way to increase your chances of success is through a process known as "counter-conditioning" — start healthy behaviors to replace your old habits, such as eating fruit instead of potato chips or chewing gum instead of smoking cigarettes.

5. Maintenance

You've reached this stage when you have achieved your goal but are working on keeping up your good behavior. If you've lost weight, this might include strategies to avoid overeating and to keep up your regular exercise program. Depending on how serious the habit was, your maintenance stage can last anywhere from 6 months to 5 years.

6. Termination

Congratulations! Once you have become a "terminator," you're no longer tempted to return to your old bad habits, and you have a good sense of self-efficacy, the feeling that you have the power to maintain your healthy behaviors. 

Getting outside support

During all of the stages of change, but particularly during the last 3 stages, it's important to develop "helping relationships," which are social connections that reinforce your new behavior and provide support and acceptance. These relationships can include supportive family and friends, a counselor and a support group. According to the transtheoretical model of change, these helping relationships are an important strategy for making your behavior change permanent. Change might be hard, but don't skimp on this part of your transition — it could mean the difference between success and failure.