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First Published in VITAL magazine june 2004

Habits and why you do them.

Ever wondered why when stressed, some people scratch their eye-brows, others bite their nails and you may go on a “retail therapy” spending spree?

Habits reduce stress, which is why we do them. Even the habits that are harmful to us, such as hair-pulling, smoking or gambling, bring with them instant relief, yet long-term guilt. This causes us greater stress, which we relieve by repeating our habit, and so the circle is perpetuated.

We all have some habits, even if we don’t always recognize them in ourselves. (Just ask the people you live or work with and you may be surprised to find out what you are doing unconsciously!) We can also accept that most supposedly “bad” habits come about or are exacerbated during stressful periods. Even when we think we have surpassed a habit, it can often just take a little tension for us to find ourselves back doing what we swore we would never do again. What we seldom look at, is why different people express their stress in different ways.

Doctors often are quoted as saying that stress is the underlying cause behind many illnesses, from high blood pressure to heart attacks. So we know there is a link between how we are emotionally and our physical bodies response to those feelings.

If our emotions affect our bodies then it is not unreasonable to understand that our habits, as repeated physical actions, are also linked up with our emotional states. Our habits come as a result of certain repeated ways of thinking or feeling. It’s as if their very repetition keeps reminding us of where exactly our troubled issues originate from.

Perhaps your habit is to procrastinate (while there is still time!) You know the jobs you know you should do, the pile of correspondence that remains unanswered, the person you need to confront, or the clients that you keep meaning to call. All these tasks increase daily as you avoid doing them, adding to your stress levels. When we put off things today, we increase our burden for tomorrow. Yet your response is to avoid them, in the hope they will disappear… only they don’t.

Not finishing tasks leaves us unable to move forward, as there is still so much that needs to be done in the present. Being stuck, means we don’t have to implement changes in life, that deep down we know we need to do. Like Peter Pan, we have become trapped in our own Never-never-have-to-change land.

Delving a little deeper we can see that there are different kinds of procrastinators:
1) The adrenalin junkie, who enjoys the challenge of leaving things to the last minute and then seeing if they can get finished in time. Meeting the deadline, brings about a state of euphoria.
2) There’s the perfectionist, who can’t bear to start a project in case it’s not completed it perfectly.
3) We may avoid doing some things, usually household chores, as a way of passively resisting a partner who we may see as controlling or demanding.
4) Maybe you’re a big idea sort of person. Like wanting to write a book entitled War and Peace part Two. Do you take on or conceive huge tasks? At times the idea may seem so enormous you simply don’t know where to begin, so you avoid doing it altogether.
5) Do you get easily bored? You may simply dislike or find certain tasks un-stimulating. Doing these tasks sometimes brings up uncomfortable emotions which we would rather not experience, so we override any guilt we may feel about not doing them and push them aside.

Nail-biting is another common habit many of us have. So why do some of us chew the backs of pens and others our nails? To find the answer we need to explore what functions our nails traditionally were used for. We know that in more primal times, we would use our finger-nails to attack or defend ourselves by clawing and scratching whatever threatened us. However as we became more civilized, scratching our colleagues’ eyes out became a less than acceptable way of showing our aggression (particularly if the person happened to be your boss.)

Some people find it easy to express their anger before it reaches the explosive level. But many of us are afraid of what the consequences might be of throwing a tantrum or simply saying “what you do I find offensive,” so we hold back and internalize our anger. We want to claw at another, but know we cannot do this, so we sit with the resentment and bite off our weapons. This causes tension, which is reduced when we bite our nails. Having relieved the immediate stress, we feel better, even if our nails look terrible. We have not however dealt with the underlying cause behind the stress – our inability to appropriately express anger. The soreness of our nails is a metaphor for our own pain, while the exposed fingertips reflect our own vulnerability.

Questions to ask yourself are:
1) Who am I angry or resentful with?
2) What is a more appropriate way to express this than hurting myself?

Shrugging our shoulders is another habit we may have and not be aware of. Shoulders are where we traditionally carry our baggage or burdens. (Think of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders.) If over time our emotional baggage builds up and we do not release it, we may find that shrugging our shoulders is a stress relieving way of demonstrating that we are tired of the burden of the feelings that threaten to weigh us down. Literally “get off my back,” is what we are saying to those feelings or situations that we are tired of experiencing, or we may want to “shrug off” a situation that has been difficult to handle.

Retail therapy is a term used frequently these days to explain the urge to go and spend money when one is feeling stressed. Woman display this habit far more than men do, no doubt because women are by nature gatherers. (It is also associated with certain types of depressive behavior.) Once again the experience relieves the stress in the short-term, but increases it in the long-term, when your bank statement arrives. Somehow acquiring stuff externally may be an attempt to compensate for an internal feeling of lack. We seek fulfillment, but are unsure how to achieve it. We may also have come to associate our self-worth with financial worth. When our self-worth is especially low, throwing money around makes us feel better about ourselves.

All habits have some emotional cause. So the next time you find yourself running back to check you have locked the car, tapping your leg or scratching your eye-brows ask yourself why. Then work with the underlying issue behind your habit. While stopping your habit may in itself prove stressful, the long-term benefits could reduce your stress substantially. It’s a case of short-term pain for long term gain.

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