Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
There are time-proven techniques for breaking habits. One such technique is the "Habit Reversal Training." Such techniques can be applied to hair pulling as well as other types of habitual and automatic behaviors.
Techniques discussed in this article are expressly written for adults but they apply to children too, with minor adaptations, of course.
If your problem behavior is due to another disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder or relationship trauma, seek professional help. Sometimes, a person afflicted with hair pulling problems can also benefit from mood management and assertiveness training to gain control of habitual or compulsive behavior.
Destroy any self-limiting beliefs you might have about the habit you want to break. Instead of thinking, "I can't seem to stop… (a habit)," think, " I have yet to figure out a way of stopping…"
Identify the individuals who will support you in your efforts to break the habit. Perhaps, you know someone who has a similar problem. You can support each other. This is the reason why support groups are so successful.
Make a written "contract' with yourself for complete cessation of the habit. A contract should have "rewards" and "penalties." Set a big reward for fulfillment of the contract and small rewards for interim progress such as 10 or 25% reduction in the habit. Likewise, fix penalties for times when you renege on your contract.
Now you are ready for the serious work. First acquire a full and complete understanding of your behavior. Observe and write down your behavior in terms of " when" "where" and "what." Example: "After supper, while watching TV in the living room, I start twirling my hair. Before I realize it, I have pulled a dozen or so."
There may be many other significant details, which can enhance your understanding of exactly what you are doing. After all, habitual behaviors are largely automatic-done with little awareness.
The description of "what" also involves identifying events and emotions that occur just before you start the problem behavior. Perhaps, you pull hair (or more of it) when you have a deadline to meet or are upset about something over which you have little control; or when you are confused, indecisive or have nothing to do and get bored.
Establish a baseline. How many times a day or week do you perform the behavior? With a baseline in place, you can monitor your progress or lack thereof.
Utilize benefits and consequences reminders. Strengthen your motivation by writing down the negative consequences of your habit and the benefits that will follow cessation of the habit. For example, what would you be able to do when you let your hair grow normally? What would happen when you have bigger, thicker and longer hair?
Identify what you'd do in lieu of the problem behavior? Find some activity that makes it almost impossible to act on the urge to perform the problem behavior. This is called the "replacement behavior." For example, instead of pulling your hair, you can do something else with your hand, like paint, draw or squeeze a ball.
Visualize performing the replacement behavior. Then rehearse the behavior in actuality.
Imagine yourself in the future without the problem behavior. For example, what would you look like? How would you feel? How proud would be of yourself?
Avoid or control situations in which you are likely to perform the behavior. If you pull your hair while watching TV, it makes sense to wear gloves, squeeze a ball or take notes about what you are watching. If touching your hair escalates into hair pulling, then touch your hair only when you're washing or combing it.
Get control over your thought process as it relates to the problem behavior. Learn to stop the thoughts that trigger the behavior. Practice thought stopping. Ask your partner to startle you by yelling or clapping suddenly when you appear "thoughtful." Deliberately start thinking the problem thoughts and then be rudely "awakened," by your partner's yelling or clapping.
Stress triggers problem behaviors. Learn deep breathing and relaxation techniques.
Develop right thoughts to counter the urge to pull your hair. For example, remind yourself of the cessation benefits and the negative consequences of slipping into the old habit. Have a back-up plan in case you relapse.
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Copyright 2002, Mind Publications