Strategies for Staying Sane: Breaking Bad Habits

Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus


Constance found herself pulling her hair again.  She had done so most of her life, but in the last few months became aware that her hair was actually thinning.  She knew she had to stop.  But how could she break a fifteen-yea habit?  Hugh wished he could stop biting his nails. “This annoying habit seems to have a firm grip on me!” he exclaimed.  It was unlucky that he consulted a therapist who believed that it was necessary to explore Hugh’s unconscious motives. This proved to be a waste of time and money.


A lot of people develop simple but annoying habits that they find very hard to break: nail biting, hair pulling, skin picking, knuckle cracking, and a host of other disturbing behaviors.

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Regardless of the nature of the habits, the technique of habit reversal usually works very well in breaking them. Constance and Hugh could have benefitted from habit reversal’s five main components. Here’s the first:

  • Recognize that the habit is a strong or persistent urge that is not rooted in deeper psychological problems.

Unfortunately, there are still many mental health practitioners who maintain there is inevitably a deeper meaning behind simple habits and that it is necessary to unearth and treat this underlying process in order to break the habit successfully. Recent evidence shows this to be untrue.

The second step is to

  • keep precise records of urges and count the number of times that ; you actually succumb to them.

It has been shown that the very process of counting and record keeping tends to give one an immediate sense of control over the habit.

The third element:

  • Develop an awareness of the chain of events that leads to or results in the unwanted behavior.

For instance, you may find that boredom, watching TV, talking on the telephone, driving in the car, and doing routine tasks that call for very little concentration set off the habit you wish to break.

The next component:

  • Learn relaxation methods as a means of combating the urges.

As soon as you become aware of the desire to give in to the habit, it is a good idea instead to sit down or lie down and start breathing slowly and rhythmically while deliberately letting go of tension throughout your body.

The final aspect of habit reversal:

  • Substitute a response that is incompatible with the unwanted behavior.

For example, brushing your teeth instead of eating a cookie; petting your cat instead of twirling or pulling your hair; using your hands ~~ gardening, drawing, typing, and so forth ~~ instead of biting your nails or cracking your knuckles.

If you really desire to quit the habit, this five~easy-step process really works.


Dr. Clifford N. Lazarus is a licensed psychologist, Co-founder and Clinical Director of The Lazarus Institute. In addition to his general psychotherapy practice, Dr. Clifford Lazarus specializes in health and neuropsychology.

Dr. Clifford Lazarus received his B.A., M.S., and Ph.D. in psychology from Rutgers University where he was a Henry Rutgers Research Scholar.  Seen here are excerpts from one of his books, The 60-Second Shrink – 101 Strategies For Staying Sane In a Crazy World, a book, he co-authored with his father “One of the ten most influential psychotherapists in America”  Arnold A. Lazarus, Ph.D.  For more details on Dr. Clifford Lazarus visit this link to The Lazarus Institute.  Or visit his page here on

Books available at Amazon by Arnold and Clifford Lazarus

Direct links to two highly recommended books by Dr. Clifford Lazarus & Dr. Arnold A. Lazarus:

The 60-Second Shrink: 101 Strategies for Staying Sane in a Crazy World 

Don’t Believe It for a Minute!: Forty Toxic Ideas That Are Driving You Crazy

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