Do you have a bad habit?
Maybe you bite your nails. You wish you could stop, but the habit is so ingrained that you bite down to skin without even thinking about it. Or maybe you’re an impulsive shopper. You ignore your dwindling bank account until all of your unnecessary purchases start to encroach on your ability to pay the very necessary ones. A simple “bad habit” can lead to addiction all too quickly, especially in the case of substance abuse. An article published in 2005 in Nature Neuroscience illustrates how “some drugs and alcohol can disrupt volitional mechanisms by hijacking the brain mechanisms involved in seeking natural reinforcement and weakening brain mechanisms that inhibit these processes.” That means that people with addictions experience a change in brain chemistry that makes them less likely to place their personal well-being above the desires of the addiction. Since that article was published, the understanding of the link between neuroscience and behavior changes has slowly expanded. In his more recent research, ET Berkman notes, “behavior change [branches] into two dimensions, one motivational (the will) and the other cognitive (the way). A notable feature of complex behaviors is that they typically require both.”
As we can see, the desire for behaviour change can be as small as wanting to grow your nails back and as large as wanting to break free of substance abuse addiction. No matter what obstacle you’re trying to overcome, change begins in the brain.
Why Can’t I Seem To Break My Bad Habits Even Though I Want To?
We’ve all heard that humans are creatures of habit. Early humans may have needed to be creatures of habit in order to survive, and therefore they might have passed that genetic information down to their generational children: us. Instead of reminding us to migrate with our food source, the habits modern humans develop both help and hinder us. So if you’re trying to quit smoking, try not going to the same places or doing the same things you used to when you smoked. Why? Because “approximately 45 percent of everyday behaviors tend to be repeated in the same location almost every day.” From ET Berkman’s research, “the will” is just the first step to behavioral change using neuroscience. Actively seeking change is the first step of “the way” that breaks the cycle of the habit. It seems so simple, but neuroscience supports the theory that changing what we do helps to change how we think about the habit. When we start to think differently about the habit, our brain chemistry helps us to break it if it’s no longer beneficial to us.
What Can I Do To Change My Habits?
Neurobiology has found a link to our bad habits. They live in our brain. Research from UCLA reveals “activation in the ventral medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) in response to health communications predicts whether individuals will subsequently engage in healthier behaviors (or reduce unhealthy behaviors).” The same article reports, “A parallel and complementary area of research in health psychology and health communications also suggests that personally relevant tailored messages are more effective at promoting healthy behaviors” So we’re right back to Berkman’s theory! The best way to change a habit is to both want to change (an activated vmPFC wants healthier behaviors) and seek change (seeking messages and therefore social situations that are personalized to one’s individual desire for change). Consider your habits. Do you really want to change? Be honest with yourself. If you said yes, are you truly doing anything to change your habits? Turning off your phone at night if you’re finding you’re too dependent on it, creating a budget and reviewing your bank statements daily if overspending is an issue, etc. ET Berkman says change–true and lasting change–only begins with the desire to change and only becomes actual change once actions are involved.
What If I Need Help To Change My Habits?
Acknowledging the need for help is a step in the right direction to breaking a bad habit. That’s part of “the way” that Berkman discusses in his research–an action you can take to develop healthier habits. There are hundreds of sources that help with small bad habits all the way to addictions. Those seeking to correct addictions or disorders should seek professional help as the brain chemistry involved with these conditions are incredibly complex. For those seeking to break smaller bad habits or adopt healthier habits, The Smarter Brain says first recognising the Trigger, Routine, and Reward of a bad habit is a major step to defeating it permanently. For example:
Trigger–Having a bad day at work
Routine–Stopping for fast food on the way home
Reward–A high-calorie meal that floods your brain with endorphins
Recognize what the Trigger, Routine, and Reward is in regard to your own habits. Expert Judson Brewer has found in his research that “Better awareness of the triggers that cause bad habits has been shown to interrupt the existing feedback loop that keeps a bad habit in Recognize what the Trigger, Routine, and Reward is in regard to your own habits. Expert Judson Brewer has found in his research that “Better awareness of the triggers that cause bad habits has been shown to interrupt the existing feedback loop that keeps a bad habit in place.” Once you recognize what your triggers and routines are you can reach out to those you trust. A trained coach can identify what stage of change you are in and move you to the next step, then help you stay accountable as you seek to change your response.
It may sometimes feel like your habits are controlling you, not the other way around. However, neuroscience reminds us that the desire to maintain or change a habit–good or bad–is in our genetically coded brain. We are able to change either on our own or with help from professionals that are trained in how to help us take the next step.