Why Do You Fall Back Into Old Habits, and How Do I Deal With It?

How is it possible that people have difficulty permanently changing their behavior, for example, when losing weight?

Unhealthy eating, smoking, or excessive phone use; are difficult habits to unlearn that cause many people to revert to their old behavior. In short, time to do something about this. In this article, I explain how people can revert to their old behavior. Also, I will give you several useful tips.

How does a relapse begin?

A relapse to the old behavior usually does not come out of anywhere. Often everything has happened before that.

A useful model to explain a relapse is Marlatt’s relapse prevention model. This behavioral model shows that relapse usually starts with an imbalance. If your life is not in balance because you suffer from stress, you are much more likely to compensate for that stress. This sometimes manifests itself in cravings for treats.

Such a craving does not necessarily lead to a relapse. But it does get a lot more difficult when you end up in a complicated situation. In Marlatt’s model, this is also referred to as a “high-risk situation.”

1. Rationalization

The first twist of thought is also called rationalization. An example of this is that you will justify your own behavior. You probably know the thought: “I’ve been having a hard time. Lately, I deserve to snack.”

2. Denial

In denial, you overestimate the degree to which you can deal with temptation, while the past has shown that you usually could not handle temptation well and often give in.

3. Irrelevant decisions

You make an irrelevant decision when, for example, you take money with you when you go for a walk, to buy something tasty from it “completely by accident eventually.”

At the same time, you tell yourself that you only take your wallet with you for unexpected situations, such as a taxi in the unlikely event that gets lost in your own city.

How do you deal with a high-risk situation?

Suppose you end up in a high-risk situation, then it is important to deal with it effectively. This is also referred to as an effective coping response. I explain this below with a common example from practice.

Example “Emily”

Emily has had a rough day and feels tired. At home, she also gets into a fight with her partner. She gets frustrated. Then she feels a strong urge to reach for something sweet.

This is an example of a high-risk situation. The past showed that she often snacked when she got into an argument and felt frustrated. Emily also has the thought, twirl, “I have now deserved to eat something tasty.”

Next, Emily can deal with that twirl of thought in two ways:

Ineffective coping response

An ineffective coping response from Emily would be when she goes into her thoughts too much without thinking about other strategies that can help her relax further. Chances are she will snack when she considers the thought that she has earned it as “true.”

When she does decide to snack, it leads to negative feelings and thoughts. Like “I messed up, I can’t.” Her self-confidence then declines. This misstep can be a one-off. But this slipping can also lead to thoughts such as “I’ve already screwed up now; it doesn’t matter now anyway.” This is also called the all-or-nothing principle.

The result is that she then lets herself go completely. With an ineffective coping response, the chance that Emily will relapse is, therefore, much greater.

Effective coping response

An effective coping response is, for example, when Emily says to herself: “If I feel frustrated after work, I don’t snack, but then I go for a walk or call a friend to talk about my feelings. There are more effective ways to unwind and relax ”. This leads to more self-confidence and reduces the chance of a relapse.

Make sure you have enough balance.

I see that many women set high standards for themselves. For example, they must be good mothers, wives, and employees and have a killer body. Pursuing all these things at the same time costs a lot of energy. Therefore, it is important to ensure that you relax sufficiently and not set too high standards for yourself. The following questions will help you with this:

  • What are the most important things to do?
  • Which 3 activities can make you more relaxed? Think of sports, yoga, or relaxation exercises.
  • What helps here is to think about which activities you end up in a flow with. In other words, a situation where you forget the time and are completely absorbed in that activity.
  • When are you going to work on this during the week and make time for it? Write this down in concrete terms.
  • What are the three aspects of your life that cause the most stress?
  • Are you rested during the day? If not, what can you do about it?

Dealing with cravings

We see that many people combine stress or an unhappy feeling with overeating or craving. Of course, it is okay to eat a treat now and then. But prevent this from happening too often. It is, therefore, important to come up with strategies to deal with craving effectively.

How do you become more aware of your warning signs?

It is not surprising that you do not know exactly what warning signs are for you. There are several ways to help you discover them:

  • Keep a (food) diary

You can also keep a diary to track other behaviors.

Eat/live with attention.

We take most of our thoughts as true throughout the day. This is useful in itself, but it can also work against you. For example, if you see the thought “I have deserved to snack” as a true thought, you will be more likely to snack. By being more aware of what you think and experience, you can prevent this.

Therefore train yourself to pay more attention to what you think and experience. For example, every hour, I take a few deep breaths and take a short walk, consciously paying attention to what goes through my body and mind. I also meditate for 3–5 minutes every day. This helps me, among other things, to distance myself from (negative) thoughts more quickly and not to go along with them too much.

After experiencing a relapse (misstep)

It’s normal to make mistakes. Don’t prejudge yourself. Take a step back. Let the guilt come, and don’t go along with it too much. It will pass.

Besides, it is important to go back to the reason why you want to change. What are the benefits of your healthy lifestyle? Clearly put this on paper for times when you’ve experienced a relapse to remind yourself what you’re doing it for.

Analyze the relapse and come up with a new plan

I also recommend learning from every situation to deal with such a situation more effectively next time. What helps here is to analyze the (one-off) relapse and see the situation as a learning process.

Devise a new strategy

Then formulate what you will do the next time you end up in a high-risk situation. I recommend doing this using an if-then plan. After all, an if-then plan is a powerful method for learning new habits.

Formulating an if-then plan goes as follows: “If I end up in situation x, then I will do y.” Write this down as specifically as possible. For example, “When I feel frustrated and come home from work, I call a friend instead of opening a bag of chips.”

For example, please write down your mobile plan to easily access it when you have a hard time.

Sometimes, it can also temporarily avoid certain situations or sit at a greater distance from the snacks. It may also be wise to build up exposure to temptation slowly.

After a setback, it is important to celebrate small successes again to increase your self-confidence. Therefore, set small achievable goals. Read more about an if-then plan and setting realistic goals here. Also, it is important to reward yourself when you have achieved a goal. But don’t reward yourself with unhealthy food or cheat meals.

Keep a close eye on your behavior.

It is also important to continue to monitor your behavior, especially the first 2 years after you lose weight. Please note the following points:

  • Keep exercising regularly.
  • Continue to weigh yourself regularly and act on time. Have you gained more than 2 kilograms? Then ring the bell.
  • Be alert for changes in your eating behavior and life situation. Vacations, relocations, irregular eating, and stress in your personal life can increase the chance of a relapse.
  • Try to be realistic. An unrealistic image and a lack of self-acceptance can be a trigger to relapse.

Entrepreneur, Software Engineer | I write about Tech, History & Self Improvement. | IG: @bryan.dijkhuizen

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