Breaking Bad Habits

breaking bad habitsAhhhh. New Years…. I can feel the excitement beginning! New goals! New habits! A New You!

If it were only that easy. We wake up on New Year’s Day overfed and hung-over, and vow to change. We make resolutions and promises under duress, and then think they will stick around all year. Not smart, not thoughtful. I’m trying to change that for myself. I’d like to help you change that repeated error as well. To that end, I’ve been thinking a lot about bad habits. Why do we adopt them in the first place? How can we change them? Can they be changed permanently? This is truly the heart of making behavioral changes for the good, and an issue we must explore in order to be successful in our New Year’s Resolutions.

Think about it. Simple habits drive most of our behaviors, especially around food. Habits are unconscious. We eat the same things most every day. We drive to the same coffee shop, drink the same coffee in our cars at the same time each day. We drive the same route to work, or watch one particular news show, without any thought that these are just habits. What if our habit of eating a cookie every day at 3pm is just a habit, and nothing else? Not a statement on our willpower, not a sign we are losers, but just an unconscious habit. Can we change this behavior if the habit is not serving us well?

An article in The Boston Globe G Section highlighted an interview with Charles Duhigg, author of “The Power of Habit”. I found his insights into human behaviors and habits very intriguing and relevant to my work, our work, around eating well and exercising.

For example, Duhigg says (and I paraphrase) that every habit has three components – a cue, which is the trigger for the behavior, a routine, which is the behavior itself, and a reward, which is how your brain decides if it wants to repeat that behavior. If one can focus on changing the cue or the reward, one can change the behavior itself. He explains that behaviors are permanently stored in your brain, so just erasing them isn’t possible. But overriding them can be! By focusing on the cue or reward, you can override the behavior and thus, begin to change the habit. WOW!

Let’s look at behavioral cues first. Cues are one of 5 categories- time of day, place, presence of certain people, emotion or ritualized behavior. Think about these cues as you are performing your particular habit. Begin being aware that the cues are driving your habit. If you can change a cue- the place, the person, the time, then you may be able to change a habit. For example, I often pick and graze when waiting for dinner. What if I did not wait in the kitchen, but went upstairs instead? I could remove myself from the kitchen, take a few moments to really assess my hunger, and get aware before heading down to the delicious smelling kitchen. (Smells are big time cues! Do you crave a hamburger when you drive by Burger King and smell the grilling? Me too!)

Now, think about the rewards. What is the reward for your habit? Let’s say your habit is eating cookies at 3pm every day. What is your reward? Is the reward diminishing hunger? If so, then another food may do just as well. Or, is it that you need a break from work? If so, could you take a short walk instead? Try and figure out what potential reward the cookie represents. Could you imagine another equally satisfying reward? It is possible. But it takes awareness, accountability and a desire for long lasting change. It’s not just a matter of willpower.

Willpower is a term that is way overused. Many of my clients blame themselves for their failures because they say they have no willpower, or are lazy. This creates feelings of low self-esteem, not a good place to be if you are trying to improve yourself. Changing bad habits is not a factor of willpower or laziness. It is actually a factor of brain chemistry….. brain cells connecting in millions of ways to other brain cells; old memories connecting feelings to smells, cues to behaviors, rewards to feelings of depletion. Scientific research has proven that brain chemistry and brain connections are responsible for our unconscious habits. MRI’s performed on test subjects show that the part of the brain that lights up when a subject smells a familiar delicious smell, or sees a familiar food, is directly connected to older parts of our brains where memories are stored. Brain chemistry creates physiological changes, signals sent to the gut, which cause hunger and the desire to eat, even when we may not really be hungry! For example, let’s say that, as a child, your Mom served ice cream every night after dinner. It is easy to see that this can then become a habit for you. But, take it a step further…… let’s say that dinner is a time when your family argued. Negative emotions exploded at the dinner table. As a child, you are stressed out at dinner. Then a miracle occurs… cream is served. Trauma and stress is followed by reward…ice cream! Over time, the brain cells that store the memory of the stress and trauma connect directly to the brain cells that tell us ice cream is delicious, it is a reward. Fast forward to today… any negative emotion or stress triggers your brain cells that want ice cream, and these cells send signals to your gut to increase hunger, increase cravings. Think Pavlov’s Bell. Our ancient memories, ancient brains, act no differently than a dog’s brain creating saliva when he hears the bell signaling food.
stress triggers eating habit
This is why trying to just eliminate a bad habit does not work. You are trying to change brain connections. Your brain is hardwired to still want the reward! But, you can change the reward itself to a healthier one. You can change the cue so that your brain does not make the connection between a cue and the reward. You can do all of this, but you must try and stay aware and conscious. Use your conscious mind to override the ancient mind through cognitive behavioral changes and a better understanding of brain chemistry. Conscious thought, willingness to veer from the typical, whether it is a person or situation where you over eat, or a habitual reward for a bad day, is the only way to change a habitual eating pattern.