How to Break Bad Habits

Mariel Witmond
Mariel Witmond

11 May, 2022

Many of the things we experience can feel difficult to understand and impossible to change when we fail to recognize the natural happenings of our brain (in other words, behavioural neuroscience).

Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post on Resilience that discussed the body’s stress response system and touched on the parts of the brain involved in contributing to, and combating, stress. In it I talked about the “amygdala hijack,” whereby we react to stressful situations without thinking, and how studies have been done on animals that proved that during prolonged periods of stress, the prefrontal cortex basically shuts down leaving them unable to process what is happening.

Our prefrontal cortex is the command centre of the brain for processing information; it is the “rational” part of our brain. It helps us to focus, it is where we manage our emotional reactions, and it allows us make conscious decisions that help us to establish and achieve our goals.

Now when it comes to our habits – automatic behaviors we engage in daily – every habit (which includes things like worry and negative self talk) starts with a psychological pattern termed a “habit loop” that is triggered by a cue that tells the brain to go into auto-mode allowing a behaviour to unfold and receive a reward. The more we repeat a behaviour, the more routine it becomes and a habit is formed. These habit-making behaviors have been traced to the part of our brain called the basal ganglia – which is also the area of the brain involved in the development of emotions.

As soon as our behaviour becomes automatic, the prefrontal cortex once again essentially goes to sleep. Prolonged worry or negative thinking exhausts our brain’s resources as we diminish its ability to reason. Understanding this perhaps makes it easier for us to process why, for example, we struggle to change the way we speak to ourselves or combat our limiting beliefs. The “rational” part of our brain is essentially offline.

Interestingly enough, our brain develops back to front, so even though children have a functional prefrontal cortex, they won’t develop the more intricate, decision-making capabilities until they are older (roughly 25 years of age, meaning teens are usually processing information via the amygdala resulting in reactions that stem more from feeling than thinking!). Experience impacts the development of our prefrontal cortex, which begs the question – how many of our behaviour traits begin before we are fully equipped to contradict them?

So how do we break bad habits?

Our thoughts create “channels” in the brain and we can consciously or unconsciously wire the brain to get very good at what it is doing. The good news is that although habits may be deeply ingrained, we are capable of altering them. If you can change the routine, you can change the habit. It takes practice and it takes time, but if we can become aware of our reward-based learning system, we can identify what the reward is that reinforces our behaviour in order to learn to change our association of it. For example, many times we worry in an attempt to become more aware of a situation or better prepared to face it should the worst happen. Though the habit can be detrimental, we have come to associate the reward with protection.

Often our negative self talk stems from defense mechanisms trying to keep us “safe”, though ultimately all they do is keep us small. Through mindfulness and awareness, we can decrease the reward value by recognizing that it is not as gratifying or beneficial anymore, especially now that we are conscious of it. This is the beauty of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections. Our life literally changes when we learn to change the way we think.

Having a clear sense of identity stems from having a healthy mind, and the clearer that identity the more able we are to stand confident in our power and essence. This confidence in turn encourages us to take action. What we think of ourselves and say to ourselves matters far more than what anyone else might. By getting curious about our behaviours we can focus on opening ourselves up, rather than indulging in unhealthy habits that routinely shut us down.

“The best way to change a habit is to understand its structure” – Charles Duhigg

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