Picking at your nails. Chewing your hair. Cracking your knuckles. Are you guilty of any of these?
They're "bad" habits" -- things we all do without thinking about it, that are probably annoying to everyone around us. Some are more innocuous -- who's really hurt when we clench our jaws, anyway? -- while others are more harmful -- smoking, we're looking at you. And while the triggers can vary from habit to habit and person to person, a lot of the time, we do them because of -- you guessed it -- stress.
"Stress and anxiety kind of scramble the brain a bit so we're not able to pay attention the way we need to to keep ourselves from doing things," says Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., a motivational psychologist, author and HuffPost blogger. That's because a habit is a habit -- we become conditioned to do it, whether good or bad -- and it takes willpower to not do it. But stress sucks away that willpower, so it becomes a double whammy.
"You have to become kind of vigilant because you have to catch yourself," Halvorson tells HuffPost. "What stress does is … disrupts our ability to focus on things we really want to do."
What makes a habit "bad" to begin with? Halvorson says that while some are more obvious -- activities like smoking, binge eating, alcohol abuse, etc. have known negative health effects, and habits like compulsive shopping can eventually bankrupt you -- other quirks like cracking your knuckles or chewing on your hair can seem quite benign.
James Claiborn, Ph.D., a Maine-based psychologist and author of "The Habit Change Workbook," adds that the difference between a "bad" habit like occasionally pulling at your hair or picking at your skin and an actual disorder is the degree to which it interrupts your life. For example, everyone has picked at their skin before -- whether it is a scab or a zit, or a skin blemish -- and everyone has probably pulled out a gray hair or a weird frizzy hair from their scalp. But when it turns into a disorder is when those behaviors interrupt daily life. Compulsive hair pulling, for example, is in the fourth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual as trichotillomania (it's considered an "impulse control disorder"), while compulsive skin picking will be added to the upcoming DSM-V, Claiborn says).
"It's not like disorders are qualitatively different from other behaviors; they're quantitatively different, [meaning] how much it's impacting you." he told HuffPost. "You could probably come up with a knuckle-cracking disorder. If you're doing it a lot, and it's causing problems for you," that's when it can go into the territory of an actual disorder.
Claiborn says that the first step to changing a habit is to first think about why you do the habit in the first place. "We need to look at what are the advantages, disadvantages, motivations for changing, motivations for not changing," he says.
Then, it's important to keep track of our efforts to try to change that habit.
"Measurement is reactive. If you get people keeping track of what they're doing, it actually causes some change," he says. For example, if you're trying to quit a really bad habit like smoking, tracking every time you light up increases awareness, and triggers you to start thinking about why you're doing it.
Finally, Claiborn says that it's important to come up with a replacement activity that is not as "bad" as the habit you're trying to break. This "opposite habit" should be something that you can continue long enough to get you through a period of urges to do the "bad" behavior.
And then of course, once the habit is broken, it's important to prevent relapse. The best way to do this, Claiborn says, is to not think about habits as something that we either do or don't do. If you slip up once, view it as a mistake and understand that it doesn't justify doing it a second time.
While these steps Claiborn outlined apply to the breaking of really any bad habit, there are some specific tricks you can use for the most common ones. Here are Claiborn and Halvorons's suggestions for conquering those urges:
Nail-biting or picking, knuckle-cracking, other hand-focused habits: Claiborn says that people trying to kick a hand-focused habit should try substituting the activity with something else that keeps the hands busy -- like clenching your fist. "You can't clench your fist and bite your nails," he says. And if you're always using, say, your right hand to engage in the "bad" habit, Halvorson recommends trying to do it with your nondominant hand to draw focus to the fact that you're doing the activity. Or, consider wearing gloves or keeping a rubber band wrapped around your fingers -- "anything you can do to make that automatic behavior slightly more difficult is enough to make you aware of it," she says.
Cursing: Even though it makes us feel better, cursing is not one of those activities that is kosher for all occasions and all company. Halvorson recommends coming up with a replacement word that you can train yourself to use instead of the curse word. "'Barnacles' is a good word, because it's pleasant coming out of the mouth," she says. "So if you find something like that, then you can try doing a replacement thing and then after awhile you just say 'barnacles' all the time instead of cursing."
Clenching your jaw: The first step to stopping this one is noticing that you do it in the first place, Halvorson says. Also, chewing gum can help to keep your jaw perpetually loose, she adds. Claiborn recommends keeping your mouth in a slightly open position, where you can breathe gradually and slowly exhale. "You can look at the muscles, the part of the body involved, [and put] it into position that's incompatible with the problem behavior," he says.
Playing with your hair or chewing your hair: An action as simple as wearing your hair in a ponytail or bun for awhile could be enough to help you break the habit, Halvorson says.
Jiggling your leg or foot while seated: Claiborn recommends holding yourself in a rigid position so that your muscles are tensing up. The key is doing this long enough so that urges decline, he says.