How to Start Healthy Habits and Stop the Harmful Ones

Written by Samantha Wall, LCSW
Edited by Joe DeNoon


Habits. They  keep us going from day to day, as well as create structure and feelings of comfort when aspects of our life are causing us stress. They aren’t always so positive however. Sometimes we can’t help but fall into  habits that can stymie our growth or even harm us. Now, of course, this can fall into the subjective, a helpful habit for one person can be a harmful habit for another. When we think of harmful versus helpful habits, what comes to mind? When I think about harmful versus helpful, I reflect on the habits that I actively am trying to keep versus the habits I am working to lessen or leave behind.

For an easy example of a harmful habit, I have a habit of picking my nails, so I can tell when I am more stressed by the state of my fingers. I find my nail picking unhelpful and harmful for obvious reasons, but it is hard to stop! I want to have my nails looking the way I want. What’s more, when I am stressed, I can have sores on my hands, which hurts and makes the whole situation worse! 

On the other hand, a habit I am constantly working to continue is mindfulness in the evening. Like most people, I get on my phone or watch TV most nights, but I don’t love that habit. When I am able to engage in coloring, crafting, or even doing a puzzle one or two nights a week, I notice I feel more energetic during my day. Finishing a project leaves me with a real sense of accomplishment. I find this habit of mindfulness in the evenings helpful because I notice I feel more centered versus when I don’t. 

Understanding myself and my habits helps me set the necessary goals to create new patterns that will benefit me. Some people benefit from more directed goals and firm boundaries when changing habits, but I know I will fail if I set those up. If you need more structure in making changes, some ideas to create it are creating a vision board, journaling and tracking the changes you are seeing, or making goals with someone to hold each other accountable. These are all ways to create more trackable goals and help support you in the process of change.  

When trying to create healthy habits, think about what feels good, the purpose of creating this habit, as well as reachable goals for you as an individual. If you are someone who is neurodivergent, creating habits may look different for you. Someone with ADHD will actively have to think about and hold themselves accountable to continue the ‘habit’ or what I like to call structure to their day. Other ways to support habit creation or decreasing unhealthy habits when struggling with symptoms of ADHD or even depression is to create rewards or positives for yourself when you are engaging in healthy habits or stopping harmful habits. If you are able to engage in mindfulness during your day versus doom scrolling, compliment yourself, put money aside for a bigger treat like a massage or a nice dinner! On the other end of the spectrum, people who struggle with OCD, habits can quickly turn into obsessions and compulsions. When someone struggles with OCD or symptoms of higher anxiety, I highly recommend utilizing resources such as a therapist to talk about how to combat this aspect of your symptoms or checking in with yourself on how to keep yourself accountable when a habit has crossed the line into an obsession. Habits are very beneficial and can soothe and lessen anxieties, where obsessions and compulsions only increase anxieties overall. 


When creating our own new habits or trying to combat old habits, asking ourselves these questions can give us a great place to start: 

  • Is this a helpful or harmful habit for me? 
    • This may be hard to answer honestly! If you feel resistance despite knowing this could be a helpful habit to start or a harmful habit to stop, check in with someone you trust to talk about it or journal about the resistance you are feeling. 
  • What struggles do I have when creating habits? 
  • What struggles do I have when stopping habits? 
  • What support do I need? 
  • What is my goal with stopping this habit? 
  • What is my goal in creating this habit? 


There is so much that goes into our habits, why we have them, why we keep them, and why it is hard to change! What is a habit you are wanting to change this year?

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