SUPER BADD; Unhealthy Habits Are Hard to Quit, but Better Ones Can Replace Them

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Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Eating junk food, gossiping, avoiding exercise and being late are just a few bad habits Patrick Feeney's introduction to sociology classes listed during discussions earlier this month. Mr. Feeney, who holds a doctorate in sociology, tells his students at Montgomery College in Rockville that what is considered a bad habit varies across cultures and over time. For example, drinking coffee is considered a bad habit in some African countries but not in the United States. Smoking was a sign of status 100 years ago but now is considered almost a syndrome, he says.

"These are social constructions," Mr. Feeney says.

Bad habits are behaviors that cause self-harm or offend others, he explains.

The habits are repeated subconscious behaviors used to manage distress and stress, coping mechanisms that soothe and calm a person, says Jonathan Kandell, an assistant professor and head of the counseling service at the University of Maryland's Department of Counseling and Personnel Services at College Park.

"If you find something to relieve stress or control it, it becomes basic reinforcement," says Mr. Kandell, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology. "You're basically putting out some serotonin to reduce the anxiety levels."

Serotonin is a chemical the brain produces to help reduce stress and negative feelings, Mr. Kandell says.

"These habits are a way of helping you keep your feelings under control and deal with a situation you can't deal with more directly," he says.

Bad habits are reinforced when they reduce stress or tension or provide pleasure, says James Claiborn, co-author of "The Habit Change Workbook: How to Break Bad Habits and Form Good Ones," published in 2001. He is a specialist in obsessive-compulsive disorder with a private practice in South Portland, Maine.

For instance, a nail biter may initially bite a nail because it has a ragged edge and find that the biting produces a satisfactory result from a reduction in irritation, says Mr. Claiborn, who holds a doctorate in psychology.

"After a fairly short time, a lot of habits become quite automatic, and we do them without processing consciously what we're doing," he says. "Since habits are learned behaviors, then at some level, some changes in the synapses in the brain occur."

Habits, whether good or bad, do not require much thought, says Larney Gump, associate professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University in Northwest. He has a private practice, also in Northwest.

"Habits are convenient, and habits allow us to operate every day without having to reinvent the wheel," says Mr. Gump, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology.

Bad habits can offer a pseudo-comfort that numbs feelings, mutes consciousness and drains energy while costing time and money, says Judith Wright in her book "The Soft Addiction Solution: Break Free of the Seemingly Harmless Habits That Keep You From the Life You Want," published in 2006.

Mrs. …