We all have habits we’d like to get rid of, and every night we give each other the same pep talk: I’m going to bed earlier. I will resist this cookie. I will stop biting my nails. And then tomorrow comes, we give in and we feel worse than bad. We feel defeated and guilty because we know better and still can’t resist.
The cycle is understandable because the brain does not make changes easily. But breaking an unhealthy habit can be done. It takes intention, a little skill and some effective behavior modification techniques. But even before that, it helps to understand what is going on in our brain, with our motivations and with our self-talk.
We feel rewarded for certain habits
Good or bad habits are routines, and routines, like taking a shower or driving to work, are automatic and make our lives easier. “The brain doesn’t need to overthink it,” says Stephanie Collier, director of education in the division of geriatric psychology at McLean Hospital and professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
Bad habits are slightly different, but when we try to break a bad one, we create dissonance, and the brain doesn’t like that, says Luana Marques, associate professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. The limbic system in the brain activates fight-flight or freeze responses, and our reaction is to avoid this “threat” and revert to the old behavior, even though we know it’s not good for us.
Often, habits that don’t benefit us still do us good, since the brain releases dopamine. It does this with anything that helps us as a species survive, like eating or having sex. Avoiding change is considered survival, and we are rewarded (albeit temporarily), so we keep backtracking every time. “That’s why it’s so hard,” Collier says.
Find the reason you want to change
But before trying to change a habit, it is fundamental to identify why you want to change. When the reason is more personal – you want to be there for your children; you want to travel more – you have a stronger motivation and a reminder to refer to during the difficulties.
After that, you want to understand your internal and external triggers, and that takes some detective work. When bad habit craving hits you, ask when, where, and with whom it happens, and how you feel, be it sad, lonely, depressed, nervous. It’s a mix-and-match process and different for each person, but if you notice a clue ahead of time, you might be able to catch up, Collier says.
The next part – and sometimes the hardest part – is changing your behavior. If your weakness is a morning muffin on the way to work, changing your route might be the solution. But environments can’t always be changed, so you want to find a replacement, like having almonds instead of candy or frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. “You don’t have to aim for perfection, just a little healthier,” Collier says.
This is an excerpt from an article that appears on the Harvard Health Publishing website.