Do bad habits cause more harm than we think and how can good habits improve our mental health?
Our habits can have a significant impact on our mental health and on our overall happiness and life satisfaction, yet despite knowing this, a great number of us not only have no good habits in our locker but still maintain a whole load of bad habits in our day to day lives. These bad habits, big or small, are perhaps more damaging than we know.
Of course, there are well known bad habits like smoking that we are all aware of and of which we respect the consequences. Yet there are many other bad habits that lots of us may share, of which the consequences are not fully realised or appreciated.
I’ve had many of these over the years, some worse than others and some that made a more lasting impact. To start, I’ll give you two examples. Firstly, for a long time, I would overindulge in snacks, sweets and chocolates. At least a few times a week I would eat far too many sweets and leave myself feeling terrible for it. Not with guilt but physically I would feel awful. Headaches, low energy, groggy and sometimes a bit sick, and these were just the immediate effects, god knows what it was doing to my body in the long run. Most of the time I would accompany this bad habit with another one, playing too many video games. These two just went hand in hand, they were perfect together, games and snacks, I couldn’t have one without the other and I overindulged in both. Too much gaming would affect me much in the same way as the sweets, leaving me feeling lethargic, low on energy and generally just a bit out of it.
What I didn’t appreciate at the time was the ripple effect that these more obvious consequences were having on my life as a whole. It seems like common sense looking back on it, but I just didn’t think that my habits were affecting me in any way other than the immediate. Now, I realise that the low energy and lethargic being caused by my bad habits really did damage my life. That lack of energy no doubt played a role in my depression, it certainly damaged my social life as I never had enough energy to feel like going out with my friends or to even talk to them. My energy was often so low that just speaking often felt like a genuine effort. My lack of energy also made me lazy, which made me very un-enthusiastic when it came to getting a job, I hated the idea of it and that, of course, held me back financially, which in turn also damaged my social life. These two consequences alone, regardless of any other problems my habits were causing me, led me to a pretty terrible and solitary, bedroom existence. My habits did not necessarily create that on their own but they played an important role. Realising now that everything is connected, I know that one bad habit can ripple throughout the rest of our lives.
Fast forward to the present day and with this realisation, I have installed a few more healthy habits in my life and perhaps just as importantly have cut down on my bad habits. I no longer spend entire days on my Xbox and rarely stuff my face to breaking point. Don’t get me wrong, I definitely still have bad habits. I probably still snack too much for one, but I don’t let myself get to the point where I’ve eaten so many sweets that I feel dreadful. I know when to stop, I can literally feel it within myself. This is key. You see, perhaps the most important thing to know about these two old habits is that they were just that, habits. Meaning I did them out of habit rather than because I wanted to. I was so used to just playing games that I would do it even when I didn’t feel like it, even if I was bored with the game, even if it felt wrong. And if I was playing a game then I needed snacks, often not because I wanted them but purely out of some unconscious autopilot action. Of course, sometimes I wanted snacks, I mean, come on, who doesn’t? But a lot of the time I almost actively didn’t want to eat some chemically processed rubbish and was yearning for something healthy, though, out of habit just had sweets anyway.
This is an important distinction to make. Neither gaming or sweets are bad by nature, I think they’re both great when used properly. Now I instinctively know when I want to play games and when I want to stop. I instinctively know what I want to eat and when I’ve had just the right amount. We all know this, we all have this intuition in us, it’s pretty simple. The key is actually listening to it and then acting on it. When we begin to do this, we stop doing things out of habit and get just enough of everything we need and want, at the time we need it. I say listen but it’s actually more of a feeling, an incredibly subtle feeling but once you find it, you will know it forever. As with anything else, mindfulness and meditation really helped me to feel my feelings. Those two practises really improved my self-awareness and as I became more aware of myself I became aware of this subtle gut feeling. Listen for it, feel for it and you find it. Then, begin to follow it.
Since having reduced some of my bad habits from my teens, I have had a lot more time in my day to practice some new, good and healthy habits. These are the habits that have really kickstarted my mental health and happiness. Where reducing my bad habits got me to a feeling of OK, these habits boosted me beyond that, to more energy, peace and joy. I’m sure any weekly readers can guess that one of those habits is indeed daily meditation, something I have spoken about a lot so will not explain here, though it has certainly had the greatest effect. (Check out our meditation page here) There are, however, lots of other healthy habits that I have at least tried if not maintained, that have produced clear and positive results in my life.
Running is certainly a good one, or exercise of any kind really, and not necessarily for the reasons you might think. Yes, going for a run will definitely improve our physical health but it can also benefit our mental wellbeing. Exercise does this in at least two ways. Firstly it helps us mentally, simply because it betters us physically. Mind, body and soul are all connected and each can affect the other. When we are physically healthy we enjoy all the benefits that brings, like having more energy, and that feels good mentally and emotionally. Simple as that and the same goes for eating healthily. The second benefit is more immediate. In a way, exercise can be seen as meditative, in that doing something so physical forces us into the present. We become more aware of our bodies, feeling the changes, strain and pain of exercise. This added awareness begins to ground us into the present and is a big factor in why people feel that going for a run clears their head. Often, its because it gets them out of it.
Walking can achieve a similar result. It is less demanding but if we walk in nature there is a peace to be found there, as well as an awareness and presence. When we are in unfamiliar surrounding our brains kick in and we focus more. We are naturally more interested and become more present, escaping our heads.
Drinking plenty of water is a great habit and can really improve our health. We all know we need to stay hydrated but I think a large majority of us hydrate to an average minimum when we could drink a lot more. I like to drink a large glass of water first thing in the morning to kickstart my mind. Our brains dehydrate overnight and I find downing some water early in the morning wakes me up that much faster.
The list of healthy habits goes on, taking notes, having a good sleep pattern, waking up early, leaving your phone at home, though I don’t have the words to put them all in this post. However, we do have a page dedicated to the topic so please check that out. (Healthy Habits) We’d also love to hear any of your healthy habits and how they’ve helped you, so please comment them down below and maybe we’ll add them to our page and credit you.
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Finally, this article discussing 10 bad Habits You Really Need To Break is great. Rather than things like smoking and overeating, these guys suggest we should be breaking habits like gossiping and using our phones in bed, give it a read.