No, it’s not just you: Many of us are breathing a huge sigh of relief that the dumpster fire of 2020 is finally in the rearview mirror (even though 2021 isn’t off to a great start). But as with any new year, while we’re currently caught up in the promise of a fresh start and setting our resolutions, we need to set realistic expectations for ourselves. 

One common resolution is improving one’s health — whether that’s losing weight, getting fit, committing to a Dry January, or the seemingly simple act of trying to make or break a habit. We spoke with two experts about when habits become a problem, how to break those habits, mapping out individual solutions, and finding some low-cost resources to deal with them.

What is a habit?

A habit is “a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance.” 

A regular meditation session is a practice, as is eating when you’re hungry. We have a tendency to label everything with the two value statements of “good” or “bad,” when in fact all they are both practices of behavior. 

I’m not suggesting that a habit that you want to change is a negative thing. Quite the contrary: Making healthful changes is a positive effort that improves overall wellness, whether that is changing your relationship with alcohol or working out three times a week.  

When do people seek help for habits?

Typically, people seek out assistance for habits when they notice changes in their use and have a concern that they have formed a habit that is causing difficulties. That might emerge as a habit of using cannabis a couple of times a week to smoking it every day as a coping mechanism. 

What’s interesting is that people don’t necessarily want to categorize their habit as an addiction. Instead, they would rather have experts define it for them. 

“People generally seek out assistance with determining if their alcohol or cannabis ‘habit’ is a problem,” Kristine De Jesus, Psy.D., explains. De Jesus also elaborates that when one is referring to a habit, they very often seek to minimize the problem. “Interestingly, chaotic alcohol and cannabis use is commonly minimized and framed as a habit,” she noted, “which is likely related to its use being socially acceptable in a way that other drug use isn’t.”

When does a habit become a problem?

A habit becomes problematic when it begins to negatively impact the individual in every significant aspect of their life, says Geri Lynn Utter, Psy.D.. When someone consistently uses an excessive amount of alcohol that results in DUIs, interpersonal issues like relationship problems, struggles with keeping down a job, or problematic physical issues, then it’s clear that the individual’s use has gotten out of control.

“One big sign that a habit has become problematic,” Utter explains, “is when the individual has made an effort to cut down or stop their drinking or drug use on their own, but has been unsuccessful.” 

A further example of a problematic habit becomes when a person needs to do something, like drinking or taking drugs, to cope with their issues, rather than using it intermittently as one of many ways coping. “Most folks come to realize that their habit might be problematic when they have an opportunity to reflect on ways in which their habit is causing harm to themself, loved ones or others,” DeJesus says.

“One big sign that a habit has become problematic is when the individual has made an effort to cut down or stop their drinking or drug use on their own, but has been unsuccessful.” 

Dr. Utter adds that it is also important to acknowledge that habits are difficult to break and are very often more serious than we might think. “When we speak about them in the context of drug and alcohol use, we are often referring to addiction,” she says. 

It is unfortunate that something so potentially dangerous is also one of the most stigmatized conditions in the world. But seeking help for a habit that has become problematic isn’t something you shouldn’t feel shame about. Utter explains that this stigma can be a barrier to treatment. 

“Stigma, or being judged by others about alcohol and drug abuse issues, and self-judgment tend to rear their ugly heads creating a barrier for folks to seek treatment,” Utter warns. Seeking help for a habit, however, actually reveals strengths. “Insight and self-awareness into these habit-forming behaviors can overpower feelings of self-inflicted judgment and stigma which leads them to seek help.”

Different solutions for different folxs

When talking about habits involving alcohol and other substances, it’s important to be mindful of the potential risks of suddenly stopping use. “Suggesting someone stop drinking often isn’t a helpful experience and honestly has the potential to be dangerous,” De Jesus believes. “For folks with a physical dependence on alcohol or other drugs, suggesting they stop using suddenly can be medically dangerous and possibly lethal,” she says.

The level of help really depends on the severity of the habit or addiction. Thankfully, there are a number of different solutions for individual scenarios. “Depending on the severity of addictive behavior an individual demonstrates, the level of intervention they seek can vary,” Utter says. She uses the example of “a working mom of two young children, who has been acting as teacher, chef, and therapist, during the pandemic, while trying to juggle her work with one Zoom meeting after the next.” Utter also paints this woman as someone who “has noticed that her evening glass of wine has increased to three glasses of wine.” While the consequences for this person are not all that severe, she notes that “mornings are often accompanied by a headache and she feels as though her drinking is getting out of hand.”

For this example, Utter offers that “she may want to address this budding issue by turning to a digital therapeutic or online coaching program to help her quit or reduce her alcohol consumption.” She may also reach out to her primary care doctor or a mental health professional, such as a therapist, in order to discuss the underlying issues (like stress) that may cause her to drink more. 

“Depending on the severity of addictive behavior an individual demonstrates, the level of intervention they seek can vary.”

Conversely, if a person attempts to cut down their drinking or drug use on their own and is unsuccessful, a more serious intervention may be needed. “That is a significant sign that they may require professional help from a recovery program, mental health or medical professional and that their alcohol misuse may be an alcohol use disorder,” Utter says.

What’s key is that the intervention, or approach to tackling a habit, is person-centered in terms of goal and pace. It’s also critical to meet people where they are at in their recovery journey.  “Pushing a specific approach or intervention that I know may help them would not be beneficial if the client is not ready to receive it. Though the interaction between a therapist and client is reciprocal, the agenda or topics covered in the session depend on what the client feels comfortable addressing in the session. And the client’s level of comfort has a lot to do with the manner in which the therapist engages the client. Building a solid therapeutic rapport is an essential part of the therapeutic process.”

People in early recovery who want to change a habit

Finding recovery doesn’t mean people miraculously recover from all the habits that have caused them problems. You may have heard that habits formed in recovery are a lot like a game of “whack-a-mole.” In other words, when you start to get a handle on drinking, something else pops up. What’s important is that you’re aware that recovery is a process and it isn’t necessarily about stopping a behavior; instead, it’s about finding better ways to cope.

“When helping people who are looking to change a habit, it is often helpful to add healthy coping skills, rather than focusing on stopping a behavior,” explains De Jesus. “When people have developed healthy, self-sustaining habits, choices become available in coping. And when coping skills are readily available, people have options to be self-directive in changing up their habits.”

“When helping people who are looking to change a habit, it is often helpful to add healthy coping skills, rather than focusing on stopping a behavior.”

Utter has a supportive yet firm and collaborative approach for people in early recovery. “For an individual in early recovery, it is important to work collaboratively with them to help them identify people, places, and things that might trigger them to use,” she maintains.

“For an individual in early recovery, their thought process and decision-making abilities have been clouded by their drug/alcohol use,” Utter says, citing that it “might sound obvious” to others. That said, it’s vital to work with people to discover their triggers or temptations to use. 

Harm reduction versus abstinence

There is a range of pathways of recovery and recovery goals. That might mean abstinence for some, or moderation management for others. All options, whatever they are, should be seen on a spectrum of harm reduction that helps to create awareness and move toward wellness. Ultimately, though, they have to be decided by the individual. It is particularly important that folx meet their cultural and economic needs as they choose the right option.

“Focusing on reducing harm and not demanding abstinence creates an opportunity for people to self-reflect and create a path of wellness that makes sense for the individual, without undue pressure to change,” De Jesus says, noting that the multiple pathways of addiction recovery allow people to heal in ways that are personally and culturally relevant. She further explains that “collaborating with clients on creating a journey towards wellness creates an opportunity for healing that best fits the clients’ needs.”

Any goals other than abstinence can oftentimes be confusing for some people and their families. “Unfortunately, choosing a path outside of the traditional 12-step, abstinence-based model can be confusing for loved ones (and the greater community in general) because recovery in the USA has been closely linked to AA and other anonymous mutual aid groups,” De Jesus explains. However, one positive thing to come out of the pandemic is that there are now more options available. “One of the few bright spots in the COVID-19 pandemic is that meetings have moved online and allowed for people in remote locations to connect with people across the country for mutual aid groups outside of the 12-step traditions,” says De Jesus.

Additional habit-busting resources 

If a person with limited resources wanted to change a habit, there are a range of options available. “There are so many great apps available for free to download and since COVID-19,” De Jesus says. “Many supports that were once financially inaccessible are now available online for free or highly reduced fees.” Family and friends can also be helpful in creating support networks or finding resources to support the process of habit changing, according to De Jesus. 

Dr. Utter points out some other effective resources for people to use. “The first thing they might want to do is see if they qualify for Medicaid medical coverage,” she says. “Folks are typically approved for Medicaid if they are low-income.” (To find out if you qualify you can visit the Medicaid website.) 

Utter also provides resources specific to mental health-specific resources. “Open Path Psychotherapy Collective is an excellent resource for individuals who do not have the finances or insurance coverage for mental health services,” she says. Open Path is a nationwide program offering mental health services online and in-person to individuals, children, couples, and families at a significantly reduced rate who need treatment.

A perhaps less well-known, low-cost alternative is colleges and universities — and you don’t need to be attending them either! Utter explains that “universities and colleges may also have mental health clinics that are open to community members for minimal expense who need counseling and other mental health services.” She says that she attended Chestnut Hill College for her doctoral degree in clinical psychology (PsyD) and the school had a clinic, open to the community, where there were low-cost or, sometimes, free mental health services.

No matter what, the process of breaking a habit is as riddled with complications and challenges as dealing with the consequences of a bad habit itself. That said, the sheer number of resources out there should provide anyone struggling out there with a glimmer of hope. Just because it’s the start of the new year doesn’t mean that change needs to happen immediately. The more you set realistic expectations for yourself and look at change honestly, the more likely you are to find yourself at year’s end trying to remember what bad habits you had in the first place.