One of the hardest things about breaking bad habits is that they’re so darn automatic. You walk into the kitchen, and you’re eating a cookie before you even know what happened. You experience stress at work, and suddenly you’re on a smoke break as if by teleportation. If you barely notice it happening, how do you stop it? According to psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer, the answer is to approach your bad habits with curiosity.
Usually, you start a bad habit because it benefits you in some way: that cookie tastes good; smoking cigarettes got you in with the cool kids in school. You begin to associate that habit with the good feeling it gives you. This reward-based approach stems from way back in our evolutionary history.
It follows a simple vicious cycle. See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward.
A small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most of our thoughts and planning take place, is responsible for the moment-by-moment control of habits that are switched on at any given time, according to neuroscientists at MIT. Research has found that although habits may be deeply ingrained, the brain’s planning centers can shut them off, according to the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Once a behavior becomes automatic, the decision-making part of your brain can go into a sleep-like state—so you might not be aware that you’re doing it. The more you do something over and over, the easier it is for your brain to create a pattern and automate that response for next time. So if you hit snooze on your alarm four days this week when you planned to work out, your brain is being primed to tell you to repeat that action next time your alarm sounds.
When you feel bad, your brain remembers that good feeling the habit gave you and goes searching it out. Soon, you’ve associated the bad habit not only with a good feeling, but with the triggers of bad feelings too. The triggers don’t even need to be good or bad — a 1999 study found that, just like Pavlov’s dog, smokers can learn to be triggered to smoke by completely neutral sounds, smells, or images. Whatever the trigger, the more you respond to it with your habit, the more you reinforce that behavior until you experience those moments where you’re eating a cookie or smoking a cigarette without even knowing why. At that point, your habit is beyond your conscious control, and you have to call in the big guns.
Enter mindfulness training. Being mindful means learning to direct your attention to what you want and passively observe what you don’t, especially when it comes to negative or distracting thoughts and emotions. By feeling the sensations of smoking — the shape of the cigarette, the smell of the tobacco, the taste of the smoke in their mouths that help to bypass that automatic response and realize how gross the habit really was.
Smoking is one of the most infamously tough habits to break, so it’s likely this will work for other habits too. If you’re trying to kick your sweets habit, try being curious about what you eat. How does it smell and taste? How do you feel in the moment? How does it make you feel afterward? That sugar rush may not be as rapturous as your brain thinks it will be, and it might even make you feel queasy or jittery. Take a few deep breaths to get present. Ask yourself, Why am I doing this? See what answers come to mind. You may want to follow that up with, What other habits can I practice instead? Some options include changing your environment, calling a friend, listening to music, going on a walk, or pulling out your headphones and listening to a meditation. Chances are, once you distract yourself from the bad habit—and keep doing it repeatedly—your brain will start to realize that you’re moving away from that pattern and look for new ones to adopt. When you’re mindful of your actions, you have a better chance of regaining control over them.
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