In the worst part of lockdown, I started religiously drinking two cans of Guinness every night like I was Tom Hardy prepping for Bronson. I knew full well that doing so might not be the best thing for me. But I had been wearing the same bobbled joggers for two months and as long as I was wearing them, I figured all rules were out the window.
We’ve all developed some quiet little methods of pressure release during lockdown. Like me, Prudence* got furloughed from her job back in May. "I’ve been waking and baking since then," she admits. "Very bad... But also very good." She expects to stop when she starts work again. "I will miss it but I'm sure I'll feel better for not doing it."
Jo* has been quarantining in her own private Great British Bake Off. She discovered a local ‘treat box’ delivery and has been eating one "ridiculously indulgent" cake every day for 10 weeks.
Sophie* reports staying up late, sleeping too little and drinking too much ("I know it’s just boredom," she adds). Meanwhile, Ilana* has quit bras: "The braless existence is one I've fully embraced and I don't think I'll go back to wearing one if/when we return to ‘normal’ life."
Whether we’re trying to forge good habits or break bad ones, publishers have long been capitalising on our habit obsession. 'Habit lit' – books about making and breaking habits – is a goldmine: Atomic Habits, published a year and a half ago, has sold 2 million copies already and is still in Amazon's top 50 bestsellers. The contemptuously titled Make Your Bed was only one rank behind it in last year's charts. Another New York Times bestseller, Tiny Habits, enjoyed a 12-way auction for US rights (UK rights sold for an undisclosed six-figure sum).
In lockdown, a perfect storm of anxiety, stress and isolation has acted as the perfect explanation-cum-excuse to develop or keep new 'bad' habits. Annmarie Carvalho is a lawyer turned psychotherapist and often sees clients who work in the fast-paced world of law. Many of them have got themselves into a habit of overworking, although she's loath to call it a 'bad' habit. "It's difficult to tackle in many professions, because it brings you rewards, and it makes you feel good on a temporary basis."
She’s well aware of lockdown’s ‘hothouse’ effect on habits. "I’ve noticed this in myself as well: everyone has their own particular insecurities and ways of dealing with them." In lockdown, she says, you have fewer distractions, so ‘bad habits’, be they nail biting or wasting time on a particular website, have become more pronounced.
Carvalho finds that trying to control small, harmless habits can be a little pointless. "It reminds me of that whack-a-mole game. You push one down and something else pops back up." Therapy, she adds, can at least help reduce the harm caused by our truly bad habits.
Freud was the first to point out that some bad habits or behaviours have ‘secondary’ or ‘epinosic’ benefits, i.e. the benefits people get from not overcoming a problem. Nowadays therapists are more likely to call it a ‘payoff’ or take another version of a non-judgemental attitude towards it.
You see ‘payoffs’ all the time in social psychology; a recent example is ‘revenge bedtime procrastination’. Nicknamed on Chinese social media, it refers to a pattern of staying up late after work as a kind of ‘compensation’ for hours lost.
I ask Lisa Eringer about ‘secondary benefits’. She’s a psychotherapist who specialises in addiction and anxiety. Eringer says she is more likely to call these benefits ‘protection’: something you buffer your habit with so you don't have to delve into the underlying reason you've developed it.
She saw two distinct trends a month into lockdown. Some people did really well at the start and then struggled. Others struggled to begin with, picking up a bad habit or two, then had a vibe check after a month or so. For example, a few clients reported drinking too much. "For them it was like: ‘Okay, I can do this for three or four weeks and manage it with alcohol. But this is going to have a big impact on me if I continue like this.'" Moments like this help you pin down what you get from your bad habit (like the temporary relief from anxious thoughts that alcohol might bring) and seek it elsewhere, Eringer says.
She also warns against turning the introspective mood of lockdown into a self-hate sesh. "When it comes to habits like drinking, the worst part of it can be the shame." Lockdown, she says, is "not the time for the glow-up."
Dr Julia Coakes is a psychologist in Leeds who specialises in a type of CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) that focuses on acceptance. Like Eringer, she says, a few of her clients reported drinking more. "We’re feeling a background level of anxiety and when we’re bored, bad habits are really attractive." (Other clients have seen nail-biting, hair-pulling and skin-picking go up.) On top of the anxiety and boredom, a lot of us feel out of touch with who we are and what we believe in, she points out, which erodes a sense of purpose, identity and self-esteem.
To break your lockdown habits, she says you’re going to have to feel your feelings. "For example, if you’re not having that second glass of wine, you've got to sit with the anxiety instead. Today's society is a lot about trying to make a feeling go away – for example, if we exercise it will feel better. While that may be true, sometimes we have to let emotions have space."
Dr Ross Ellenhorn has worked in mental health for over 30 years and his new book, How We Change, explicitly focuses on the reasons why we get stuck. For him, the real headache of lockdown comes from the uncertainty over when this will end – a lack of what’s called ‘time perspective’ in social psychology. "If you don't have a sense of when things end, your morale drops and that means your motivation drops." At first, we had a sense that we could get through this, he explains. "But it just keeps going on and on and on. That breaks down your ability to keep hoping, and then you don't want to get excited again about change."
Like a lot of us, Dr Ellenhorn is amazed at how well most of us have adapted to having our lives turned upside down. The reason it worked, he feels, is essentially that we all did it together. "As long as we're doing it in a group, as long as we have a shared mission: you remove those things, and you make it your own choice." In turn, this created a bit of false confidence in our own willpower. "When you're not going to die tomorrow if you don't do it, it becomes really hard."
If you can tune out the influencers and learn to live with this background hum of anxiety, he says, you’re winning. "If people are kind of buying what our culture teaches us, and they're saying, ‘Oh, I should be dieting right now, and I'm a bad person, because I'm not working out,’ that's not good. But to spend some time studying yourself and feeling uncomfortable without having the option to escape: that might be good."
He doesn’t like giving advice but, when pushed, says anxiety deserves a little more credit. "Be a little forgiving of this part of you that wants things to be safe. Without that part of us, we’d probably all be dead. Have some love for the part of you that's holding you back. It's doing its job."
*Names have been changed
If you are struggling with mental health issues, please make an appointment to speak to your GP or get in touch with Mind.