Building new habits is easier than breaking old ones

Breaking old habits requires us to untangle years of ingrained behaviours and rewire our neural pathways which may feel daunting and overwhelming. Good news is, you don’t need to break old habits, you can simply create new ones. When we embark on the journey of forming new habits, we start with a clean state which can help break away from old patterns. This blank canvas allows us to shape our behaviour in a desired direction, making it easier to establish routines that align with our goals and aspirations. Each small step that is taken in the right direction propels us forward on a positive trajectory toward personal growth, transformation and overall better mental wellbeing. Knowing this, here are a few of the many useful habits you can pick up to improve your mental health.


Habit 1. Build Self-Compassion

In order to combat our tendency for self-criticism we can add self-compassion to our thinking habits.


Self-criticism often stems from a belief that being critical of oneself is synonymous with self-improvement. The idea being that by being tough on ourselves, we are more likely to excel and achieve our goals, but the data shows that this is not the case. During our upbringing, interactions with parents, teachers, and peers can instil the idea that constructive criticism and high standards are essential for personal growth and success. This conditioning can lead individuals to believe that self-criticism is a necessary motivational tool. However, as research suggests, the relationship between self-criticism and improved performance is not always straightforward. Excessive self-criticism can lead to anxiety, stress and even demotivation, which in turn will hinder rather than enhance personal development. It is crucial to strike a balance between self-reflection and self-compassion, recognizing that self-encouragement can be just as, if not more effective in fostering growth without the negative emotional toll that self-criticism may cause.


So how do we talk to ourselves more compassionately?

Soothing rhythm breathing is a great technique for this. This breathing technique involves regulating your breath to create a calming rhythm. The key is to maintain a steady, soothing rhythm to help reduce stress and anxiety. You can see find out more about this here with the brilliant Diana Hill!

You also can use a kind gesture to yourself. When you find yourself in a challenging or distressing situation, taking a moment to engage in a kind gesture can help you practice self-compassion. Holding your heart or gently touching your cheeks while reminding yourself that you’re only human, can be a physical reminder to treat yourself with kindness and understanding, just as you would a friend.

Imagining that somebody compassionate is talking to you is also a great visualisation tool that can help you access feelings of self-compassion and comfort during difficult moments. This mindfulness exercise involves visualising a person you consider to be exceptionally compassionate and understanding. It could be a colleague, a parent, a close friend, or anyone who embodies empathy and support. Imagine this person speaking to you in a caring and soothing manner, offering you guidance and reassurance.


Habit 2. Building present moment awareness, and gratitude

Worrying is a common human tendency but it often proves to be an unproductive and draining activity. Numerous studies have highlighted the fruitlessness of most worries, as the majority of the things we fret about never materialize as we fear. This excessive worry consumes valuable mental and emotional energy, leaving us feeling exhausted and anxious. Instead, cultivate a present moment awareness. Work on bringing your mind back and work on building gratitude for something happening in this moment. These mindfulness and living in the here and now tools can be powerful in redirecting our thoughts away from the uncertain future.


Habit 3. Interoceptive awareness

Interoceptive awareness is the ability to perceive and understand the sensations and signals coming from within one’s own body. It involves being attuned to internal bodily cues, such as heart rate, breathing, hunger, or emotional states. Developing interoceptive awareness can be a valuable skill for managing stress, emotions and overall well-being. The concept of having “one eye in and one eye out” can be thought of as a metaphorical approach to maintaining a balanced awareness of both our inner experiences and the external world. It suggests that we should not become entirely consumed by our internal thoughts and feelings but also remain mindful of the external environment and interactions around us.


Habit 4. Letting go

Learning to hold things lightly is a valuable lesson in emotional and situational resilience. It involves adopting an attitude of flexibility and acceptance rather than trying to exert rigid control over feelings or situations. Letting go does not mean abandoning responsibility or apathy; rather, it’s about finding a healthy balance between control and acceptance, leading to greater well-being and personal growth. In essence, this is an invitation to dance with life rather than fight against it, embracing its unpredictability and finding serenity in the process.


Habit 5. Know what matters

Focusing your energy on what truly matters is a fundamental principle for personal growth and healthier mental health. In any given moment, having a clear understanding of what holds genuine importance to you and your life can be a powerful tool to help with avoidance. Clarity surrounding your values can also serve as a compass to guide behaviour and decision-making towards aligned goals and aspirations. By channelling energy into areas of life that are in harmony with these values, you will be more likely to effect positive and purposeful change. Try to invest your time, effort and attention where it truly counts.


By Dounia Crivelli, Associate Psychologist, Reviewed in December 2023