Uppdaterat: 25 maj 2020
Habits are our autopilot modes. Our brain performs countless actions in a day, and to keep itself sane, it forms habits. Habits help our brain conserve energy and focus on important things. But they can also wreck your health if your brain gets habituated with the wrong kind of habits.
We all have struggled with bad habits formed over the years. That is because once an action gets formed into a habit, it is notoriously difficult to get rid of it. So, how to convince our brain to get rid of the autopilot modes that we do not need?
Why do we form bad habits?
When we perform the same actions each day, after a while our brain arranges them into certain continuous segments so that we can perform them without thinking. For example, the first things I do after waking up are going to the washroom and reaching for the brush. Most days I’m not yet fully awake, but I don’t need to be awake to perform these tasks; they are part of my habit.
But the catch is, your brain doesn’t distinguish between bad and good habits. If you repeat an action enough times, it will get formed into a habit, regardless of its effect on your health. Suppose a new bakery opened in the vicinity of your office, and you bought a bag of sugared donuts from them on your way home. You liked them so much you went back the next day as well. Now, if you keep doing this, after a point your brain will start to associate leaving office with eating donuts, and that’s not good news for your health.
Why is it so hard to change bad habits?
Neural Paths – Our brain has approximately 86 million neurons through which it performs its daily activities. Whatever we observe, feel, and gather through our senses, are arranged in the form of connections between individual neurons. Certain actions create certain paths in our brain, and the more we perform those actions, the clearer that path gets.
This is much like forest roads; the ones that are used regularly gets wider and easier to walk on, but the less-used ones gets weedy and tangled. And just like forest travelers, our brain prefers the wider paths than the weedy ones, because it is a lot more work to cut through the tangle and clear a path there. When we try to close the neural paths of bad habits, our brain resists, because it is familiar and comfortable.
Reward-punishment circuit – Most often, the bad habits we indulge in gives us some kind of ‘high’ or instant rewarding feeling. This is the reason we want to perform that action again and again in the first place. For example, deserts and sweets give us an instant sugar rush that is extremely pleasurable. Once it gets formed into a habit though, the punishment circuit is also activated. For example, if you try to stay off nicotin, after a while you’ll experience discomforts like irritability and headaches. When your brain doesn’t get its accustomed ‘high’, it assumes you are in danger, so it starts sending stress signals.
How to make your brain stay away
Tracking – If you want to quit smoking, start noting down each instance of smoking in a notebook. You can also record things like what you were doing at the time, what made you want to get a smoke, what time of the day it was etc. At the end of the day, go through this notebook. You’ll identify a lot of trigger behaviors. Most of our habits are formed in a series. When you get a coffee, you automatically reach for a smoke. After you get a sense of the triggers, try changing the trigger behavior.
Mindful extinction – This is the hardest part, but also the most important. Brace yourself to not perform those actions no matter what. This is the only way you can close of those neural networks. Practicing mindfulness helps a lot in these situations; learn to be aware of your actions so you will be better prepared to catch yourself performing a bad habit. Avoiding the company of those who have the same habits is also a good method.
New habits – Replace your offending behavior with a healthier alternative. Every time you feel like smoking, make a cup of tea instead. Every time you feel like having cheesecake, grab some flax seeds. When you consistently keep supplying the triggers with a different response, your brain will gradually learn to accept that as the default response.
Changing habits are hard, and bad habits harder. But with a little perseverance and strategy, you too can break free of the vicious cycle of your own mind. Why not start today?