Do you ever wish you could get control over a habit, be it over-eating, drinking, smoking, gambling, etc?
Breaking old habits and forming new ones is undeniably hard, but the good news is, it’s absolutely possible – just because we’ve always done something doesn’t mean we can’t overcome it.
Habits are driven by chemical responses in our brains and once we understand what’s going on it helps us to make changes and better choices.
Our brains are programmed for survival and are constantly on the lookout for dangers. When one arises the stress chemical cortisol is released promoting fear or anxiety and propelling us into action.
We also need certain ‘happy’ chemicals to survive – dopamine – motivation and reward; endorphin – temporary pain release; oxytocin – bonding and trust and serotonin – status and respect. These come in short boosts which then diminish e.g. we generate dopamine to motivate us to find food, if it stayed at a high level we wouldn’t bother to find any more and then we’d starve.
If we’re injured endorphin kicks in to numb the pain until we get to safety, but if it didn’t fade, we wouldn’t actually deal with the wound. Oxytocin and serotonin make sure we operate as part of a community and perpetuate the species, if they didn’t fade it would threaten prosocial behaviour.
Our ancestors would have fought or run away from the dangers they encountered, thereby discharging the cortisol, after which the brain and body would be able to generate the ‘happy’ chemicals it needed to get on with the job of living.
Although we don’t experience the same dangers as our ancestors and don’t have to run and fight in the same way, we still generate cortisol in response to life’s complexities and stresses – in fact, even just imagining a challenging situation can activate it. We experience this as painful or uncomfortable and understandably want to make it stop.
We then search through our brain’s experiences of what helped in the past and remember we felt better when we had some sugar, alcohol, nicotine, went shopping, etc – something that gave us a quick ‘happy’ chemical fix. Through constant repetition, the brain learns that this works in the moment alleviating our discomfort, and so it pushes us to repeat the habit by repeatedly going down the path of least resistance.
Unfortunately, it’s only later we realise we only got short-term relief and are left feeling bad and disappointed about our behaviour in the longer term. To make things worse, the brain gets used to the quick fix experience and urges us to do more of it to reach satisfaction, so where one or two glasses of wine used to be enough, we find ourselves drinking a bottle, a few biscuits becomes a packet, etc.
So how can we help ourselves to break destructive or unwanted habits and form new ones?
- Firstly understand the chemical urge and that you CAN get control
- Practise waiting a few minutes instead of immediately satisfying the urge – it will often abate
- Distract the brain from the habit by engaging with something else you enjoy
- Focus on what you want to start, instead of what you want to stop e.g. I want healthy lungs instead of I want to stop smoking, I want a leaner body instead of I want to lose weight, I want more money in my pocket instead of I want to stop gambling
- Don’t expect instant results – accept that at first, nothing will seem quite as good as that quick fix – but have faith that in time you’ll feel better and better
- Take comfort from the fact that the pain of resisting the habit will ease. As you build a new habit it will help you deal with the disappointment when ‘happy’ chemicals fade
- Remember the “don’t stop it, swap it” slogan – swap caffeine for decaf, chocolate for fruit, alcohol for a soft drink
- Keep repeating the new habit – we need to repeat 20, 30, 40 times before it starts to become ingrained and automatic
- Remember that as the new habit becomes ingrained you will start to produce the ‘happy’ chemicals you need
- Finally, be kind to yourself if you fall off the wagon – forgive yourself and start again
If you’d like to read more about this I’d recommend Loretta Graziano Breuning Habits of a Happy Brain.
- Michèle Lazarus became a Solution-Focused Hypnotherapist in 2013 after experiencing how hypnotherapy helped her make changes in her own life. Her past career was as a counsellor and management trainer in a variety of health and social wellbeing roles in the NHS and the not-for-profit sector.