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To cope with the extreme stress of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people adopted unhealthy habits. Ibai Acevedo/Stocksy United
  • The pandemic brought on unhealthy habits for many people.
  • During stressful times, people often turn to unhealthy habits to cope.
  • Health experts say that in order to break unhealthy habits, it’s often necessary to incorporate new healthier ones to take their place.

During the pandemic, many people found themselves developing new unhealthy habits while others felt old ones resurface.

According to a 2021 survey from ValuePenguin, 61 percent of Americans hope to break an unhealthy habit they developed during the pandemic.

“We tend to seek comfort through unhealthy habits that quickly activate our brain’s reward centers and temporarily reduce or distract us from stress. Dopamine gets released when we do these pleasurable, albeit unhealthy activities, making us crave the feeling when it’s gone,” Vanessa Kennedy, PhD, director of psychology at Driftwood Recovery, told Healthline.

She said the intense stress, boredom, and uncertainty of the pandemic’s lockdown and social distancing rules pushed people into a cycle of drinking more, being less active, and eating junk food to cope.

However, it is possible to break unhealthy habits because people have the benefit of being able to reflect on their own behavior and make changes, said Kennedy.

“We can adapt to our environment and make the conscious choice to change bad habits and resist cravings by replacing them with healthier alternatives,” she said. “We adapted to an unprecedented event and did what we had to do to make it through. Now that restrictions are easing, we can get back to focusing on our health in ways beyond preventing COVID-19.”

In order to break unhealthy habits, it’s necessary to incorporate new healthier ones, said Teralyn Sell, PhD, psychotherapist and brain health expert.

“Additionally having a strategy and maintaining consistency within that plan is key,” Sell told Healthline.

She suggested starting small and building from there.

“Often, we set ourselves up for failure by tackling too many changes at one time, which will set us back into a stress pattern and back to the original unhealthy habit,” she said.

Common unhealthy habits many people adopted during the pandemic included excessive alcohol intake, unhealthy eating habits, lack of exercise, too much screentime, and getting too little or too much sleep.

Here’s how experts suggest replacing these unhealthy habits with healthier behaviors.

The first step when reducing alcohol consumption is to fully understand how much alcohol you are drinking, said Sell.

“Often, we do not pour ourselves a single serving,” she said.

To measure how much you drink, she suggested pouring your typical drink. Then use a measuring cup or a shot glass to pour it back out. “Once you get a realistic perspective of over-pouring, you can then begin by correcting your pour to an actual serving,” said Sell.

Next, define what alcohol reduction means to you.

“Are you interested in reducing harm around alcohol, or getting rid of it altogether? Some of these strategies need to be thought out with the help of a professional,” said Sell.

Keeping a log of your drinking habits can help determine whether drinking follows a pattern. For example, if you notice that you drink more alcohol in the evenings and tend to crave it at that time, you are better equipped to make a change.

Kennedy recommended writing down the emotions and physical sensations you’re feeling before drinking, such as “feeling more anxious,” “frustrated with kids,” “exhausted with a headache,” etc.

“These notes will give you clues as to the appropriate intervention,” Kennedy said. “Identify an alternative that tends to help with that emotion or physical state, such as ‘meditation for 20 minutes,’ ‘going for a walk,’ or ‘calling a best friend.’”

Then increase your arsenal of alternatives to drinking, so you have various things to engage in instead of drinking.

“Give yourself a time-limited window for change. If your habit change strategies are not effective, working with a therapist or physician may be indicated to help you find the right resources to manage or stop drinking,” said Kennedy.

When it comes to eating habits, Sell suggested evaluating what healthy means to you. Does it mean cutting back on sugar, fat, carbs, caffeine, or something else?

“In our attempts to change something, we need to first evaluate our own situation, then educate ourselves on what we need to do. For instance, if you are wanting to cut out caffeine, make sure that you have a substitute such as herbal tea. Also, account for detox headaches as a result,” she said.

Making a conscious choice to avoid buying unhealthy foods is another first step, said Kennedy.

“If you do not have the food available in your house, you will be less likely to indulge,” she said.

When a craving kicks in, delay the urge to satisfy it by drinking a glass of lemon water and eating a healthy snack, such as fruit, before deciding whether to indulge in unhealthy eating.

“Portion control or certain food categories such as sugar or unhealthy carbohydrates may be your temptation. Creating a structured meal plan, with meals and groceries planned out for the week, may be the best option to control your cravings,” added Kennedy.

A dietitian can also help you learn about healthy recipes, develop a meal plan, and obtain support for changing eating habits.

Finding time and energy are the biggest barriers to exercising, said Kennedy.

“We can often rationalize reasons why we don’t get active, citing our other responsibilities as more pressing. Starting small and scheduling out a brief block of time, i.e., 30 minutes, can lead to monumental changes,” she said.

For instance, a 30-minute walk or strength training session twice a week can ignite motivation to build a consistent exercise habit.

“Scheduling the times to exercise and finding an accountability device, such as an alarm set on your phone or a friend to work out with can help you stick to your commitment,” Kennedy said.

Plus, pick a time of day that you are less likely to avoid exercising, and choose an exercise you find fun, so you’re more likely to do it.

“If you really love swimming, make time for it. If you hate jogging, then go for a walk instead. Often, we forget about the things that we love to do, so those things don’t get included in our goals,” said Sell.

If you’re not sure what you enjoy, scheduling a session with a personal trainer at a fitness center with multiple exercise options may help you find the right fit.

Screen time can be a sign of burnout or a means to numb out the world around you, said Sell. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media, she suggested learning something new to achieve a goal.

“For instance, if you have a goal to eat healthier, focus on learning how to cook healthier or learning how to meal prep. Better yet, take a cooking class. By learning something new you are also encouraging the health of your brain, so it’s a win-win,” she said.

Setting up an electronics cabinet outside your bedroom or a relaxation zone in your home is another way to help stop screen overuse, said Kennedy.

“We often get sucked into reading the news, catching up on work emails, or scrolling through social media to distract from the present moment. If we schedule an ‘electronics free’ window of time each day to spend with family or spend on self-care, we may notice the benefits to our mood very quickly, motivating us to stick with this healthy habit,” she said.

When your sleep is off, Kennedy said it’s usually due to a lack of consistency in your routine.

“As much as possible, try to schedule a healthy amount of sleep for the same bedtime and wake-up time each day. Use a sleep tracking app and wearable device to learn about your sleep patterns and make changes accordingly,” she said.

Sticking to sleep hygiene techniques, such as turning off electronics a couple of hours before bed, eliminating light in your bedroom, and making your room a place for restful sleep can help, too.

“Start with one or two things on the sleep hygiene list and built from there,” said Sell.

If you have difficulty with anxiety or breathing issues, such as sleep apnea interfering with your sleep quality, Kennedy suggested scheduling an appointment with a therapist or sleep specialist to address underlying issues.

“You will wonder why you didn’t address this issue sooner, as quality sleep can make a major positive impact on your mood and outlook on life,” she said.