Why are they so hard to change?
Everyone has habits, some are good and some are bad, but we all have them. The good ones can actually help us to function on a daily basis. The bad ones obviously aren’t good for us and, in some cases, can significantly impact our health in a negative way. Most have probably tried to change a bad a habit in the past, but have failed. Why is this the case? What can you do to improve your chances of succeeding, especially when the habit influences your health negatively?
A habit is a behavior that you do without thinking much about it. Often it is something that you do daily or multiple times a day. Habits don’t require a great deal of physical or mental energy because they are done automatically. This is important because your brain receives thousands of signals from your senses at any given moment and it can only consciously process only so many of these. When viewed this way, habits are helpful because they allow you to create routines that bring order and efficiency to your life. So, your brain is constantly looking for patterns in order to convert things into habits because this enables it to focus on other things that you need it to. While this is useful, it doesn’t explain why you have bad habits. In order to understand this, you need to understand the process of how your brain forms habits. The striatum is the part of your brain that manages habit formation. It does this with the input from several other parts of your brain. It is located next to the basal ganglia and connected to the prefrontal cortex and midbrain—all of these play a large role in the process. The basal ganglia has two pathways that carry messages. One tells you to proceed with an action and the other tells you to stop. When you form a habit, the proceed signal is turned on before the stop signal. For some people, this signal is very strong, which makes it more difficult for them to control their habits. The basal ganglia doesn’t send these signals without input from the prefrontal cortex and midbrain. The prefrontal cortex is the part of your brain that is involved with higher-order thinking, feeling and sensing. This provides the information to your striatum that gets linked to patterns. The midbrain is comprised of many dopamine-containing neurons (brain cells). Dopamine plays a critical part because it is the chemical that gets released when something positive happens to us, like being rewarded or experiencing an important emotional event. This flood of dopamine leads to strong connections between neurons, which leads to circuits wiring together and this results in habit formation. The bottom line is that your brain is wired to look for things that provide this sensation, so when you see something that you associate with a past positive feeling/experience, your brain gets inundated with dopamine. Keep in mind you don’t even have to be performing the activity in order for this to happen, just seeing a picture of the trigger is enough. Your brain isn’t able to distinguish between good or bad habits, but it knows that whenever you performed an action in the past you had a positive reaction. This helps to explain why you crave things because your body wants that feel-good sensation.
In order to change a habit, you need to realize that habits have specific features. All habits have a function and are triggered by a particular cue, event or situation. The reaction to it is learned by repeating an action over and over for a period of time and it becomes associated with the positive dopamine release. Eventually, your reaction to the trigger is automatic. Think of people who are smokers and when they are stressed by something, they need to have a cigarette. For other people, if they’re unhappy, they eat food. If you follow through with having a cigarette or eating food in response to your trigger, your body releases dopamine and sets off the feel-good response, which reinforces the pattern in your brain. Since this response is hardwired into your brain, it makes changing habits so challenging.
Habits can be changed, but there is no single effective way to do this. The key is to become more aware of your unhealthy habits and develop strategies to counteract them. You have to learn to recognize what the trigger is for your bad habit. You can do this by paying careful attention to what, where, when, and why it is triggered. After you know this, every time you come into contact with your trigger, you need to consciously and mindfully replace the bad habit with another behavior and perform the new desired behavior, action or thought every time your trigger is present. It can be helpful to mentally practice the good behavior over the bad prior to coming into contact with your trigger. Practicing mindfulness activates your prefrontal cortex and allows your amygdala to calm down, which gives you the ability to widen the space between your trigger and response. It provides the opportunity for you to make a choice rather than just react. It is essential to know that replacing a first-learned habit doesn’t erase the original behavior. You are switching the reaction to your trigger from a negative one to a positive one. However, old habits don’t go away, they are just masked by new habits. Your brain is able to retains a memory of the bad habit context and can trigger this pattern if the right habit cues come back and are strong enough. Unfortunately, your old habits tend to win out over time, especially in situations where you’re rushed, stressed or overworked. These habits are so ingrained and when you’re stressed your control over memory and behavior is weakened. When this happens, your automatic responses can supersede your positive aspirations.
It is essential to realize that change is about the process and it isn’t a singular event. One concept of how change occurs is the transtheoretical model (TTM), which was developed in the 1980s. This model depicts five stages of change: precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action and maintenance. Since each stage helps you prepare for the next stage, it is vital to go through each one. Precontemplation is when you have no conscious intention of making a change. This can be the result of not knowing that you need to make a change or you have tried in the past but have not succeeded. In order to move to the next stage, you must realize that your unhealthy behavior doesn’t fit with your new personal goal. You enter the contemplation stage when you are thinking of making a change in the next six months. Usually, people waver for much longer than this. At this point, you are aware of the particular behavior being unhealthy and are mulling over what to do about it, but you aren’t planning on taking action yet. Preparation stage is when you know you need to change and believe you can, so you start making plans to do so. It is important to set up support systems during this stage so they are in place for the next stage. The action stage is when you’ve actually made the change and are dealing with the difficulties that arise from doing this. This is where your support system will come in handy. You have reached the maintenance stage when you have performed the new behavior for at least six months and have shifted your focus from making a change to preventing relapse and sustaining the change. The path forward through these is not clear-cut, so many people relapse and end up going through some stages again.
One problem that is common to run into when you think about changing a habit is that you think of yourself in the future and that you’ll be different from the person you are now. So, you assume that it will be easier for your future self to deal with changing the habit that you need to change. The reality is that you will be the same then as you are now. So, if you don’t feel like or struggle with changing a habit now, it will be the same in the future. You must keep in mind that the connection you have to your future self plays a large role in the decisions you make today. If you feel more connected to your future self, you are more likely to do things today that will provide a positive outcome for your future self (ex. saving for retirement).
Even when you are strongly motivated to change a habit, it is incredibly hard to do so. One of the reasons is because you are often motivated by the wrong thing, such as guilt, fear or regret. Any change you want to make is more likely to stick if you are self-motivated and the decision is rooted in positive thinking. Another reason is that it is hard to change a habit is when you let your motivations drive you into a frenzy, so you try to solve the entire problem at once instead of starting a small, new routine. If you’re serious about making a real change, then you have to start small. It is the tiny, daily behaviors that are repeated that make success inevitable. Rather than the current mode of thought of diving into the deep end when motivation strikes, try wading into the shallow water, slowly going deeper until you reach the point where you can’t swim and go ahead whether you’re motivated or not. Your focus shouldn’t be on making life-changing transformations because these don’t work. Instead, it should be on tiny routines, daily habits, that you repeat because this is what will make your big goal that you want a reality.
The best way to make your goal a reality is by defining the behavior that you want to change and think about it in very concrete terms. Use this to outline actions that are feasible. It is important to develop a plan that has well laid out, small steps leading up to the goal you want to accomplish. Part of this plan should be to avoid temptations whenever possible and to deal with the reason that you have the trigger for the habit in the first place. Otherwise, you are unlikely to be successful in changing your bad habit. Make sure you have supports in place prior to making the change. When we are accountable to others, we are more likely to keep up with our goals. Also, by both giving and receiving support, you’ll able to stay better focused. It can be helpful to write down your goal on a piece of paper. When you do this, it can make your goal seem more real. Also, this is a great tool to have so you can look at it each day or several times a day, if needed, to help you stay on track. It is essential to give yourself enough time for your new habit to stick. Most people think it takes about a month of doing a new behavior to break an old one. Unfortunately, this isn’t correct. In actuality, most of us need to practice a new behavior for three months and some of us need longer. It all depends on what the habit is, your personality, your stress level and the supports you have in place. Be sure to allow for slips because they are going to happen. No one is perfect! Once a routine is sorted into the “automatic” category in your brain, it’s hard to get it back out, so cut yourself some slack because it is hard to change. Just remember, when you slip up, it isn’t a reason to quit. It can actually be beneficial because it provides you with information about which kinds of stressors push you off course. You can use this information to do better in the future. At some point while you are struggling with this change, you’ll ask yourself why you are even bothering to do it? This is a normal response because most people don’t like to do anything difficult or challenging. When you experience this, it is key to focus on the next step you need to accomplish because this is often more attainable than focusing on the end-goal. Be persistent and patient because it will take time for the new connections in your brain to start working and the old ones to diminish. If you are truly struggling with making the change, you can get help from professionals.
Old habits are hard to change, but it is possible. The goals you set are good to have because they provide direction, but it isn’t the goal itself that will help you reach your dreams, it is the new habits that you form and follow while you are trying to get there. So, stick with your changes and it will happen!