We are aware of which habits are healthy for us and which ones are detrimental to us.
But are habits truly as simple and straightforward as we portray them to be? Even healthy ones can be taken to a worrying extreme, after all.
Maybe you’re a clean eater who feels bad after treating yourself to dessert with your buddies. Maybe you’re a fitness fanatic who, if you miss your morning routine, is miserable the entire day.
A healthy habit’s physical nature is not a problem, but can the how and why you are doing it ever turn unhealthy?
Dr. William Orme, a psychologist at Houston Methodist, says that our actions have an impact on both our physical and emotional health. This is most obvious with behaviors that are bad for us, but under some circumstances, even behaviors that we consider to be positive can have negative psychological effects.
How good habits impact mental health
The structure is the main psychological advantage that a habit offers us.
The structure is crucial because it provides us a feeling of rhythm in our lives, according to Dr. Orme. “We prefer to be in control and don’t do well with a lot of uncertainty. Healthy habits are crucial because they give us the framework we need to organize ourselves in a constructive and positive way, which inspires us to move forward.”
Dr. Orme adds a caveat after that. When it comes to structuring, there are two extremes: too much structure isn’t always a desirable thing, and neither is too little.
Balance is everything, adds Dr. Orme. “There is no question that a healthy habit is a wonderful thing. But so is the ability to successfully modify your behavior in response to the circumstances you are now facing, even if it means putting aside a healthy habit in favor of more important issues.”
He points out that most people probably won’t have a problem with this.
For example, many people who eat healthily are able to give themselves some latitude in what they eat occasionally. They can do this by creating room for another beneficial action, such mingling with friends or loved ones at a special dinner.
Dr. Orme continues, “Unless it feels like it’s taking over your life or you feel severely agitated if you have to go without it, there’s probably no need to doubt your dedication to a healthy habit.
How can you tell if a habit is controlling your life?
Whether we ask for it or not, life throws a lot at us. To deal with the challenges we face, we also need to have some psychological flexibility, as Dr. Orme put it.
Problems might occur when routines become rigid.
According to Dr. Orme, rigidity surrounding a habit may not be apparent or even much of an issue until adversity strikes. “You become more easily overwhelmed if your coping mechanisms are rigid. This makes it more difficult for you to adjust to the environment.”
This rigidity can also manifest as the desire to exert more control over life’s more difficult circumstances by developing routines or habits. For instance, by adhering to a rigid schedule rather than taking the time to stop, feel sad, and grieve after losing a loved one, one could postpone the grieving process.
Last but not least, there may be indications that you are a little too dependent on a particular behavior even before difficulties develop.
According to Dr. Orme, problems can occur if a healthy behavior ever becomes so rigid that you no longer have control over it. “Going without an activity, even one that is healthy, shouldn’t cause you a lot of distress or have a substantial or long-lasting effect on your mood.”
Three actions to take to retake control of a habit
Dr. Orme suggests the following actions if you feel like a good habit has more control over you than you do:
1. Experiment with quitting the behavior
Try to detach yourself from the too ritualized component of the activity by gradually weaning yourself off of it, whether it’s eating well, exercising, or engaging in some other good habit.
You shouldn’t fully quit doing it because it’s a good habit, according to Dr. Orme. However, you should create a space where you may practice being more flexible with the behavior and learning to accept missing out on it.
2. Change it out with something more significant.
Dr. Orme advises replacing the habit with something else significant after taking a break from it.
For instance, Dr. Orme suggests that you might forego working out one morning in favor of having breakfast with a friend or loved one.
3. Take into account the inner experience that underlies the behavior.
Try to pinpoint the cause if you experience excessive distress or disappointment after breaking the habit.
Why are you following such a tight diet? Why won’t you be satisfied with skipping a workout?
According to Dr. Orme, rigid conduct is frequently caused by a problem embracing an interior experience, such as a thought or an emotion. “I want you to be able to accept your internal experiences, even if they cause some discomfort because I’m your therapist. Not because I want you to feel uncomfortable, but because doing so gives you a stronger sense of control over your choices and keeps you engaged in the activities that are most important to you.”
He continues by saying that giving yourself time to deal with the underlying inner feeling connected to the action can aid in redefining why you engage in it.
According to Dr. Orme, maintaining healthy behavior should ultimately focus on enhancing both your physical and emotional well-being. It’s time to make some changes, either with these suggestions or with the aid of a mental health expert, if it’s related to something else, especially if the result is having a bad influence on your mood or life.