The power of a habit is enormous. It can propel you forward incredibly or it can block any change for the better, depending on whether it as a good or a bad habit.
The one habit that counts the most, I think, is not a specific thing that you do, but rather the way in which you respond to the world. Some of it is a part of your temperament, of course. You can’t do much about the temperament you were born with. But a great part of the way you react is actually a habit, an acquired pattern of behavior, that was shaped by your past experiences.
If, for whatever reason, you were conditioned to react strongly to certain people or situations in the past, you may have to deal with a lot of stress throughout your entire life, whenever you encounter similar situations. Your acquired pattern of behavior will make you overreact even to a normal, everyday situation, because some tiny aspect of it is perhaps similar to the original bad situation and therefore triggers the same reaction.
If this becomes your primary mode of living, it can make your life full of stress, mess up your relationships and health, and decrease your productivity. Going on vacations or becoming a recluse on a desert island will only partially and temporarily solve some of the problems. Sometimes running away is necessary, but you will have to return eventually or some other problem will pop in.
The only permanent way of solving the problem is to unwire the triggers and the learned response. One of the best ways you can do this is to pay attention to your breathing whenever you detect your old unwanted patterns to emerge. Just put your attention on your breath and observe it. If this doesn’t help, then go a step further and intentionally make your breathing deeper and slower and also make sure you inhale and exhale at a regular pace. This will automatically calm you down and divert your attention away from the problematic situation.
However, you will not want to divert your attention away unless you first – at least to some extent – accept the present moment and the situation at hand, because otherwise you will have a feeling that by not reacting the usual way, you are capitulating and letting the other person take advantage of you. Of course, you are not. All you are doing is breaking the chain of automated reaction that you habituated in the past. By focusing your attention on your breathing for a few seconds you are allowing yourself some time before you can intentionally respond to the situation. It may be that the situation demands a fierce response, but you will do it on purpose, and not because you are reacting blindly. (Some emergency situations may be exempt from what I just described).
Of course, this is easier said than done. Old habits are really, really persistent, and before you have had a chance to think about it you are already reacting. Therefore, I have chosen my own personal mantra (inspired by Eckhart Tolle) that I repeat over and over again, and it helps me remind myself about what needs to be done:
Breathe. Allow this moment to be
I have written this on a piece of paper and I usually carry it in my pocket, looking at it many times a day, so that I will really internalize it. When some difficult situation presents itself I try to repeat this mantra in my mind and then actually live it. By allowing the present moment to be as it is (and not as I wish it would have been) I undermine the need to react immediately, which gives me some time to focus on my breathing instead, and this enables me to respond to the situation calmly.
It doesn’t always work, but then again I only recently put this into practice. Years of habitual agitated reactions to certain situations, people and events cannot be changed overnight. I stay optimistic that in a year or so, my new mantra will fully become part of my life, and I won’t even have to think about it anymore.