At the dawn of a new decade, you might be doing a candid self-assessment—a sort of inventory check.
Maybe you’re looking at finances or your career trajectory.
But there’s a pretty good chance you’re assessing your health, too.
For many, that can involve a newfound urge to conquer bad habits and defeat age-old addictions.
These are formidable battles—not something people need to do, or even should do, all on their own.
Want to quit smoking? Get off the sugar train?
As an individual, you can take steps to accomplish these goals in the weeks and months ahead. And there’s a host of resources to assist you in this quest for betterment.
Three Spectrum Health experts shared their knowledge about some of the more common problems people face—and they laid out actionable solutions.
If you’re looking to ax the nicotine habit once and for all, you’ll have to accept the good news and the bad.
The good? Some well-known methods can work.
The bad? Overall, the process is not easy.
Libby Stern, LMSW, NCTTP, lead of the tobacco and nicotine treatment program at Spectrum Health, stresses that smoking is more than just a bad habit.
It’s an addiction—one of the strongest.
“People are generally not successful in going cold turkey,” said Stern, a nationally certified tobacco treatment specialist. “The most successful people who quit smoking get help.”
Stern recommends seeking out a tobacco treatment specialist, as well as enrolling in a quit class and garnering support from family and friends.
It’s also important to carefully decide what tools to use, she said.
Prescription drugs such as Chantix or Zyban can help, as can prescription medications in the form of nasal sprays or inhalers. Also available is the ever-popular array of over-the-counter products, including patches, gums and lozenges.
No matter what you choose, it’s critical to draft a quit plan, Stern said.
This should outline how you’ll get support, how you’ll deal with triggers, establish new routines and keep yourself on track.
Stern also recommends creating a relapse prevention plan. This may require you to steer clear of family and friends who smoke—at least for a while.
Perhaps most importantly: Find alternatives to smoking, Stern said. Exercise, take the dog for a walk, keep yourself busy and get support from a non-smoking friend or relative.
It can also help to write down the effects of smoking and the benefits of not smoking.
The enormous rewards from quitting—improving your health, saving money and being in control of your life—can vastly outweigh any notions about the enjoyable qualities of cigarettes.
“A lot of people underestimate how difficult it’s going to be to stop smoking,” Stern said. “I remind people that there are more former smokers today than smokers—have confidence in yourself and keep moving forward.”
Food for thought
When it comes to poor eating habits, it’s important to recognize how unconscious choices are sometimes at the root of a problem.
“You may choose to drink a cup of coffee, but you may unconsciously put cream and sugar in it,” said Jessica Corwin, MPH, RDN, community nutrition educator for Spectrum Health Healthier Communities.
Want to improve your eating habits? You have to consciously make the right choices.
Before this can happen, you have to become aware of the food choices you’re making and determine why you’re making them, Corwin said.
Are you binge eating at certain times? Drawn to certain foods in certain conditions?
“Are they doing it because they are bored, stressed or hungry?” Corwin said. “Or maybe it’s 11 a.m. and that’s what you do at 11 a.m.”
If you can identify those food triggers or the cues that lead to bad food choices—and also recognize how your body perceives the ensuing rewards of those choices—it may be easier to figure out how to slip newer, healthier habits into your daily routine.
Bottom line: You need to make a conscious decision to change a bad habit, Corwin said adding, in respect to food, it boils down to setting yourself up for success.
Determine what the reward is for the behavior and then change the focus from the negative habit to a positive one, Corwin said.
In respect to food, it boils down to setting yourself up for success and establishing the proper support system.
“If you’re in a situation where friends are eating unhealthy food, maybe you should set up a healthier choice,” Corwin said. “Put out a fruit or veggie tray.”
Manage your motivation
To change a behavior, you have to pinpoint your motivation for the change, said Caleb Vandeberg, LMSW, a Spectrum Health behavioral health social worker.
Does the motivation derive from an external force—a friend or a doctor, for example—or from an internal thought?
The latter is rare.
“Often we get presented with these opportunities for change from others,” Vandeberg said. “This can be a viable starting point.”
External motivation can be good, as it gets someone started on a desired change.
But for long-term change, motivation must shift from external to internal.
“If you’re just trying to please a doctor or family member, then you may not enjoy (the changed behavior) or find meaning in it,” Vandeberg said. “Then you’re likely not going to sustain the activity.”
A solution: Take a deep dive into your values and engage the targeted behavior to see what difference it’s making in your life. For example, if a family member says you’ll feel better if you lose weight, don’t do it because the relative wants you to—do it because you really do feel healthier.
This can apply to weight loss, bad habits or an addiction.
With addiction, however, it’s important to keep in mind there are other dimensions that make it more difficult—and individuals usually need a specialist for help, Vandeberg and Stern said.
A common thread from all three professionals: For any positive change, you need to be disciplined and possess a deep desire to defeat the addiction, overcome the problem or change the long-established habit.
Above all else: Be persistent.
Never stop trying to improve, despite any perceived failures or missteps.
“Don’t quit quitting,” Vandeberg said. “It’s not the end of the world if you fail. Sometimes it’s a process. You may have a few good weeks and then a bad week. The challenge is being committed to the change.”