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The Psychology of Habits: Can a Healthy Habit Ever Hold You Back?

Nov. 11, 2021 - Katie McCallum

Just as we know some habits are bad for us, we know others are good.

But are habits really as cut and dry as we make them out to be? After all, even healthy ones can be taken to a worrisome extreme.

Maybe you're a clean eater who feels guilty after going out with your friends for a celebratory dessert. Or maybe you're a fitness enthusiast who spends the whole day in a bad mood if you have to skip your morning workout.

The physical nature of a healthy habit isn't a problem, but can how and why you're doing it ever become unhealthy?

"Our behaviors don't just impact our physical health, they affect our mental well-being, too," explains Dr. William Orme, a psychologist at Houston Methodist. "This is most readily apparent with habits that are unhealthy for us, but even habits that we think of as healthy can sometimes have adverse psychological implications under certain conditions."

How healthy habits affect your mental health

The major psychological benefit that a habit provides us with is structure.

"By and large, structure is important since it gives us a sense of rhythm in our lives," says Dr. Orme. "We don't do well with a lot of uncertainty, and we like to feel a sense of control. Healthy habits are important since they provide us with the structure needed to orient ourselves in a productive and positive way — motivating us to move forward."

That said, Dr. Orme adds a disclaimer. There are two ends to the spectrum when it comes to structure: A person can have too little, but having too much isn't necessarily a good thing, either.

"It's all about balance," says Dr. Orme. "A healthy routine is good, there's absolutely no doubt about that. But so is having the capacity to effectively adapt your behaviors to what life is currently bringing to you — even if that means letting a healthy habit take a backseat to more pressing concerns."

He notes that, for most people, this probably isn't an issue.

For instance, many healthy eaters are able to give themselves leeway on what they eat now and then — such as making room for another healthy behavior, like socializing with friends or loved ones at a dinner that's more indulgent than usual.

"There's likely no need to question your commitment to a healthy habit unless it feels like it's taking over your life or you feel significantly distressed if you have to go without it," adds Dr. Orme.

How do you know if a habit has control over you?

Life throws a lot as us, whether we ask for it or not. And, as Dr. Orme put its, we need a certain amount of psychological flexibility to deal with the situations we face.

It's when habits become inflexible that problems can arise.

"Inflexibility surrounding a habit may not be noticeable — or even much of a problem, if it's a healthy one — until adversity hits," Dr. Orme explains. "If your coping behaviors aren't flexible, you become more easily overwhelmed. This makes it harder to adapt to the circumstances around you."

This inflexibility also can take the form of using routines or habits to gain better control during life's more challenging times. For instance, one might avoid the grieving process after losing a loved one by maintaining a strict routine instead of taking the time to slow down, feel sad and grieve.

Lastly, even before challenges arise, there can be signs that you may be a bit too beholden to a particular habit.

"If a healthy habit ever becomes so inflexible that it has command over you, rather than you having command over it, issues can arise," says Dr. Orme. "Having to go without a behavior, even a healthy one, shouldn't lead to a lot of distress or have a significant or lasting impact on your mood."

3 steps to take to help regain control over a habit

If it feels like a healthy habit has more power over you than you have over it, Dr. Orme recommends taking the following steps:

1. Experiment with backing away from the habit

Whether it's eating clean, working out or some other healthy habit, try to disconnect yourself from the overly ritualized aspect of the behavior by slowly backing off of it.

"It's a healthy habit, so you certainly don't want to stop engaging in it completely," says Dr. Orme. "But you do want to introduce space where you can reinforce more flexibility around the behavior and become more tolerant to missing out on it."

2. Replace it with something else that's meaningful

After taking a break from the habit, Dr. Orme recommends swapping it for something else that's meaningful.

"For instance, maybe you skip your workout one morning but perhaps you instead take the time to connect with a friend or loved one over breakfast," says Dr. Orme.

3. Consider the internal experience that's tied to the behavior

If you do feel undue distress or disappointment after skipping the habit, try to determine why.

Why are you so strict with your diet? Why aren't you okay with missing a workout?

"I think inflexible behaviors are often driven by a difficulty accepting some internal experience, like a thought or an emotion," says Dr. Orme. "As a therapist, I want you to be able to tolerate your internal experiences, even if they lead to some discomfort. Not because I want you to feel uncomfortable, but because doing so allows you to feel a greater sense of choice in your actions and ensures that you remain connected to the pursuits that matter the most to you."

He adds that giving yourself space to address the underlying internal experience tied to the behavior can help you redefine why you do it.

"At the end of the day, a healthy behavior should be about improving your physical and mental health," says Dr. Orme. "If it's tied to something other than that, particularly if that's an outcome that's negatively impacting your mood or life, it's time to make some adjustments — either through these tips or with the help of a mental health professional."

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