Most of your actions are impulses or routines driven by your unconscious mind or in another word, habit. Habits are created by repetition and there’s a clear neuroscientific explanation for how they are formed, maintained, and changed.
Intentional actions are handled by the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Habits are mediated by the striatum, an ancient processing center located deep in your brain. In his book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb, describes it this way: “If your prefrontal cortex is modern, cloud-based computing, then your striatum is punch cards fed into an IBM mainframe.”
Your striatum isn’t even conscious and is perfectly fine carrying out bad habit after bad habit with no desire to change. Of course, your actions aren’t all unconscious and are coordinated and dictated by your nucleus accumbens, striatum, and prefrontal cortex. Your nucleus accumbens is motivated by what is pleasurable, and your striatum chooses what to do based on what’s been done before. The only part that cares about your well-being is your prefrontal cortex, and it often gets out voted.
Not All Bad Habits Are Created Equally
Your nucleus accumbens craves the dopamine squirt that it knows goes with what it has learned to be pleasurable. The confounding thing is that the first time you do something, the dopamine comes after the action. In the future, the dopamine is released earlier and earlier until just thinking about something in anticipation causes a dopamine reward. So, the dopamine released before the action and along the way actually motivates you towards the behavior, and a bad habit is born.
Every time you follow the same path, a specific pattern is activated and becomes more defined in your striatum (the neurons that fire together become wired together) and it becomes easier to activate the circuit the next time and so on. Pretty soon, the bad habit neuronal pathway becomes the unconscious default, and your brain, wanting to be efficient, just takes the easiest, most familiar route.
This is particularly true in the case of depression. In a depressed brain, there’s less dopamine activity happening in the nucleus accumbens which means that things that used to be enjoyable are not as pleasurable, and the only things that motivate it have to have a big dopamine payoff, which are the baddest of the bad habits such as junk food, drugs, alcohol, gambling, risky behavior, porn.
Interestingly, all bad habits are not created equally. The ones which release the most dopamine require less repetition to form. For example, smoking causes a big hit of dopamine, and it doesn’t take many cigarettes to pick up the practice. On the other hand, flossing your teeth doesn’t give you a big dopamine surge.
Stress Exaggerates And Triggers Bad Habits
When stressed, a person turns to coping habits which can either be good or bad. In fact, stress biases your brain towards old habits over new actions.
Your oldest bad habits are probably the ones that you developed to cope and distract yourself as a child and are some of the deepest, most ingrained routines you have – and the hardest to break. But it can be done.
To break a destructive coping habit, very rarely can you just stop doing it because you’re still left with the original stress in your brain and body. You have to replace the undesirable habit with another, more positive one and take measures to reduce the stress that triggers the unwanted habits.
Changing Bad Habits By Changing Your Brain
When it comes to breaking bad habits – and in life in general, you’ll have much more success by making your brain your friend instead of your enemy. You can stop the bad habit spiral by building more positive habits in your brain. When first trying to insert a new habit, it’s going to require conscious effort, intention, and thought until you’ve done it enough for the connections to be made and strengthened in your striatum.
This means that in the beginning, your prefrontal cortex has to use conscious will to override the old patterns until the burden of action shifts to become the unconscious default of your striatum.
You’ve probably heard that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. Unfortunately, this is not true, and there is no one size fits all answer here. The amount of time required to instill a new habit depends on what you’re trying to do and can range anywhere from 3 weeks to many months or longer with there being a curved relationship between habit and automaticity.
In the article, How Long It Takes to Form a New Habit by Maria Popova, explains:
It’s like trying to run up a hill that starts out steep and gradually levels off. At the start you’re making great progress upwards, but the closer you get to the peak, the smaller the gains in altitude with each step.
Developing Positive Habits
In the book, The Upward Spiral: Using Neuroscience to Reverse the Course of Depression, One Small Change at a Time, Alex Korb has the following suggestions for developing positive habits:
Figure Out Your Triggers – Determine what’s going to cause the anticipatory dopamine squirt to motivate you towards a bad habit and avoid it. If possible, remove the trigger for any bad habit from your life, which could mean changing your environment subtly or drastically. It’s much easier to avoid temptation than to resist it.
Use Self-Affirmations – Studies show undeniably that using positive self-reflection helps significantly in establishing new habits. The self-encouragement doesn’t have to be just about the desired behavior, an overall supportive attitude helps.
Reduce Stress – If you don’t perform the bad habits or coping mechanisms you always have, you stay stressed and get even more stressed because you can’t release it in your typical way. Then, that stress motivates you further towards the undesired behavior in a vicious cycle. Uggh! You have to reduce your stress levels through practices such as exercise, meditation, mindfulness, gratitude, sleep, and social interaction.
Accept That You Won’t Be Perfect – In order to adopt better habits, you don’t have to make zero mistakes. In fact, you will do better if you expect them as part of the process. You’ll experience more success in your transformation if you enlist your prefrontal cortex by actively paying attention. Your brain has limited resources. When you stop paying attention because of distraction or stress, your brain shifts to the old default striatum patterns, and you end up eating a pint of ice cream. Every time you push forward with your goal, you’re making the old habit weaker in your brain.
Resolve To Change – Making a personal resolution to change has proven much more effective than simply wanting to change and increases your chances of success. Be specific and make action-oriented decisions. For example, “I want to get more exercise” is not as effective as “I resolve to walk for an hour after work 3x a week.”
Increase Your Serotonin – Increasing serotonin activity helps your prefrontal cortex function properly and assert itself to override the bad habit striatum. There are many ways to increase serotonin naturally including get more sunlight, get a massage, exercise, and recall happy memories.
Enlist Your Thinking Brain – Help your prefrontal cortex control your striatum by cultivating self-awareness. Keep long-term goals in mind; write them down; post them around your environment. Consciously think about how your life would improve by changing your habits. Remind and motivate yourself with affirmations, visualization, and celebrate small accomplishments.
Practice Productive Procrastination – Instead of judging yourself harshly and stressing out when you don’t feel like going to the gym, give yourself permission to defer an activity one time and make a non-negotiable appointment with yourself for later. Then, keep it. Once you get productive, your brain releases dopamine, and you’ll have more energy and motivation to continue.
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