A friend offers you a smoke while you're sipping your cabernet. You have a cigarette every now and then, and you're not hooked. So what's the harm? This is your brain battling a bad habit... and losing. As we continually perform a behavior, the neural pathways in our brains form new patterns, says a recent MIT review. When a prompt arrives, such as the offer of a cigarette, your noggin shifts into autopilot. "Situational cues bring out habits that are deeply embedded," says Ellen Peters, Ph.D., who studies risk perceptions at Decision Research in Eugene, Oregon. But these behaviors can be bad news. So read on and learn to rid yourself of unhealthy habits.
When a coffee fanatic doesn't get that fix, blood flow in the brain spikes, according to a recent study in Psychopharmacology. This expansion of blood vessels results in a headache, while you suffer from other nasty symptoms such as fatigue and grumpiness. To avoid this, you visit the office java pot or duck out to grab a cup.
Why it's bad: A constant infusion of joe can set your nerves on edge. "High daily caffeine intake may decrease hand steadiness and increase anxiety," says Russell Keast, Ph.D., a caffeine-consumption researcher at the School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at Deakin University in Australia. Then there's a study from Dartmouth Medical School that found that people who consumed 400 milligrams of caffeine a day (the amount in about four eight-ounce cups of coffee) for an entire week showed a 35 percent decrease in insulin sensitivity, which may up the risk of diabetes.
Break the habit: Start by writing down every single thing you eat or drink for a few days to identify all the sources of caffeine — soda, coffee, tea, and energy drinks are common culprits — then tally the total number of milligrams you're consuming, says Chad Reissig, Ph.D., a Johns Hopkins University researcher who studies caffeine's behavioral effects. (You can find the actual amounts on beverage manufacturers' Web sites.) Then set out to reduce your caffeine intake by about 10 percent. "You can also mix decaf with your cup of full-strength coffee and slowly increase the ratio," says Reissig. Keep dialing back by 10 percent every few days until your craving subsides.
Cranking the tunes
This is a habit that sneaks up on you: You listen to your music through your headphones at a higher volume than you should, and eventually your ears get used to it. Then you play it at that level all the time. "It's possible to become accustomed to louder and louder sounds without realizing it," says Robert Fifer, Au.D., director of audiology and speech-language pathology at the University of Miami's Mailman Center for Child Development.
Why it's bad: Blasting Beyoncé at full volume through earbuds for long intervals can result in permanent hearing damage, because your body lacks a self-defense mechanism for loud noise. While you won't feel pain in your ears until the volume exceeds 120 decibels, the damage can begin much earlier than that. The reason: The cells in your inner ear that process sound begin working overtime to keep up with the onslaught. Eventually, they die off under stress, Fifer says. You may also experience a constant ringing in your ears, called tinnitus.
Break the habit: You have to retrain your brain to perceive lower volume levels as normal, and to automatically tune out background noise. Start by turning down the volume on your iPod or car stereo until you can hear people who are talking to you. "When you force yourself to listen to music at a lower level, your brain will begin to perceive it as normal after about a week," explains Catherine Palmer, Ph.D., the director of audiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Eye & Ear Institute.
Taking a quick drag every now and then
While regular smokers have a chemical component fueling their addiction, people who smoke only occasionally succumb mainly to social and environmental triggers. "The most powerful prompt is often being around people who are smoking," notes Michael Fiore, M.D., director of the University of Wisconsin Center for Tobacco Research and Intervention.
Why it's bad: Lighting up even a few times a month is still poisoning yourself. "There's no lower limit of exposure to tobacco smoke that's safe," says Richard D. Hurt, M.D., director of the Mayo Clinic Nicotine Dependence Center. Just one cigarette can injure the walls of your blood vessels — which can lead to heart disease and blood clots. Looming in the background is the risk of developing a full-blown addiction. Some research suggests a quarter of "occasional" smokers go full-time.
Break the habit: Benign cigarette substitutes can work wonders. Grab a drink stirrer and hold it between your fingers. Set it between your lips while you take out your wallet or phone. This keeps your mouth and hands busy. And carry nicotine gum or lozenges to help wean you off the addiction, Fiore says. Though healthier than cigs, they can be habit forming, so use restraint.
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Vegging out every night
Once or twice a week, it's totally OK to grab some snacks and fire up the plasma in the evening. But every night? Bad habit. "People who are under high levels of stress and who may not have a large network of friends are prone to isolating themselves after work," says Leonard Jason, Ph.D., a DePaul University psychologist who studies the challenges of breaking bad habits. "Eventually, it becomes their default."
Why it's bad: People can consume up to 71 percent more food while they're glued to the tube, so it's no surprise that watching more than 19 hours a week increases your odds of being overweight by 97 percent, according to a Belgian study. And TV is not an ideal way to engage your brain. For every hour beyond 80 minutes that you watch daily, your risk of developing Alzheimer's increases by 30 percent, say researchers at Case Western Reserve University.
Break the habit: Decide which shows are must-see, then record them and watch later: Zipping through the commercials can cut about half an hour off every two hours of couch time. And at least three times a week, make after-work plans that specifically involve being with other people, whether it's meeting a few friends for dinner, taking a class, or joining a recreational sports team.
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