A glass of wine when you make dinner, raiding the snack drawer when you are bored, picking up the phone and scrolling, speaking to yourself harshly, biting your nails. All of these are habits; things we do automatically and often without even realizing.
In fact, over 40% of our actions are habitual (Neal et al, 2006). Whilst many habits are helpful by enabling us to function more efficiently, many don’t serve us well and can leave us feeling stuck and wanting to change.
How are habits created?
Our brain is excellent at forming patterns of behaviour in response to certain stimuli in our environment. Actions turn into habits when overtime a trigger resulting in an action is rewarded again and again. For example, it’s time to make the dinner, you hate this chore, you poor yourself a glass of wine, you feel less agitated. Repeating this over time leaves an imprint in the brain, that’s why habits often occur without us even having to think about them.
Can we change our ‘bad habits’?
We can! Our brain is designed to adapt its behaviour, so it’s possible to break pathways and build different ones. It’s a bit like neglecting one muscle and strengthening another one. It requires work though, as you need to replace your habitual behaviour with a new behaviour and repeat this again and again.
Firstly, it’s important to get aware of what is sitting behind your habit. A colleague of mine had an unwanted habit of eating bread slathered in butter every evening. When she picked this apart, eating this evoked a memory of her grandma and the feeling of contentment, the action started by filling a void of lonely evenings and providing comfort and eventually became a habit.
Think about what you are doing, feeling and thinking just before your habit takes hold and what reward the habit is giving you. Is it distracting you? Is it making you feel more relaxed? Is it giving you a hit of pleasure or engagement? Are the stories you tell yourself fueling your habit? Are they true?
Understanding your habit helps you to be more conscious of it, to make different choices and to replace it with a better habit. Get creative to find alternative rewards that can bring you fulfilment and try and be understanding and encouraging to yourself as you work through this.
The power is yours. It takes motivation, patience, reinforcement and a self-compassion, but change is possible.