Breaking Bad… Habits – Part 1 – Understanding Your Habit in Four Parts

Humans run on habits. Life is just too complicated to manually do every step of every thing. Instead we learn a habit to take care of that thing, and trigger the habit without thinking. How many of you get to your destination and can’t remember driving there? That was habit taking over. Some of our habits are no longer good, or can be optimised for a better outcome. Yet how do you change a thing that you aren’t aware that you are doing?

Part 1 – Understanding Your Habit in Four Parts

Part 2 – The Five D’s of habit cessation (not yet available)

Part 3 – Replacing habits (not yet available)

We often think of habits as un-thought of actions. Habits can include drug misuse, such as alcohol or meth-amphetamines; or emotional dysregulation such as anxiety leading to running away from social situations.

Understanding the Habit

It is important to understand the habit. We have four components to that:

  • Biochemical – what your brain is doing on a chemical level
  • Cognitive/Emotional – how the habit change how you think, feel and experience the world
  • Social – how the presence or absence of people impact your habit
  • Environment – how the environment you are in impacts your habit

Biochemical

Brain chemistry is complex. When we think certain thoughts, or do certain things, we can affect our own brain chemistry.

Do this exercise – imagine a nice and relaxing place, somewhere that in the past you had an amazingly calming experience. Take some nice and slow breaths and try to feel the sensations of that place, smell the breeze, activate as many senses as you can.

You should now be feeling nice and relaxed.

Do this exercise – imagine a new scene, where that animal or monster you fear is there, or if you have no fear of that, receiving a phone call with bad news about that relative you like. Imagine how that event feels, how helpless you feel and unable to act.

You should now be feeling quite uptight and edgy. Do the first exercise to undo the second.

Through your actions you should have experienced some very interesting feelings. We changed the brain chemistry by imagining two situations. If we added actions to these imaginations, the effect would have been stronger. If we added drugs it may have been stronger still.

We often take actions because of how we are feeling. Either because this feeling requires that action, or because that action stops us from feeling this.

A common aspect of someone whose baseline brain chemistry is messy (up, down and all over the place) is to take a substance that pushes us into a known state of brain chemistry, even if that known state is not very pleasant. It can bring stability. If this is you, I highly recommend you talk to your doctor and get some prescribed medication to help out, and also get a referral to some counselling. You will need a two pronged approach to manage this.

Common neurotransmitter that is an integral part of habits is dopamine. It rewards good outcomes, where good is defined as “I survived”. Unbalanced serotonin (a different neurotransmitter) can cause feelings of anxiety and depression, which can interfere with habit formation. If you feel anxious, or depressed, you don’t want to repeat the thing you just did. If your dopamine reward is less powerful than your serotonin effect, you just don’t want to do the thing. This feels like low motivation, or avoidance because it is too hard.

We can hack the reward centre to improve our habits. Part of this hacking is to balance serotonin and dopamine first if that is a counter to your habit formation (anxiety disorder, depression disorder, mood dysfunction disorders, schizophrenia etc). If you add a thing you safely* enjoy to the task you want to form a habit out of, we associate that good thing with the habit and are more likely to do it.

* safely enjoy – things that don’t have a negative aspect to it. For example, food rewards are great, if you aren’t trying to lose weight or are allergic to that food etc. The safely enjoy is about picking a reward that is good in as many ways as possible, that is now reserved for this habit formation.

Cognitive / Emotional

The cognitive aspect of this is about how we perceive the habit and ourselves. This is looking at our thoughts. For example, I might think that a beer when I get home is my right as a working person, ignoring the literature that points out the harm that is doing to my body and my future. Or I might think that I am a crap person anyway, so there is no point to exercising. The thoughts I have that boost the bad habit need to be faced and corrected, with frequent reminders of the falsehoods attached to those thinking patterns.

There are two forces to every habit. The force that is reinforcing the habit, and the force that is countering the habit. By looking at and examining our thoughts, we want to boost the thoughts that counter the habit we want to change and reinforce the habit we want to replace it with.

The feeling component of this is to examine how the habit makes us feel. I will admit that after I eat ice cream I feel pretty good. What I don’t like is what that ice cream does to my waste line. The obvious part to this is to recognise that icecream is a method I use to increase my “good” feeling.

The more subtle aspects are that I wasn’t feeling good and that is why I ate ice cream, and that ice cream isn’t the only way that I can feel good.

Part 1 – why wasn’t I feeling good? Was it a random fluctuation – which will go if I just wait a bit, was it due to an event – I should look at that event and solve that problem, was it biochemical – do I need to take a medication, etc. Each reason why I was feeling bad and wanted ice cream as my quick fix should be examined and potentially addressed.

Part 2 – what other methods can I use to feel better? Ice Cream is great occasionally, but if it is affecting my waistline, then I need to re-examine the real effectiveness of this. What else can I do that helps me feel better?

Now substitute ice cream for any habit you are doing because it makes you feel differently.

Social

Humans are social animals. We want to fit in. If the people I am with are doing a behavioural pattern, then I am likely to take that behavioural pattern and adopt it into my set of behaviours. A behavioural pattern is a habit.

We can also detest the people we are around and use a behavioural pattern to try to manage that. For example, I would frequently retreat to a dark corner and read to avoid having to socialise with certain family friends. This started to extend to anytime that I was around people I wasn’t immediately comfortable with. This habit affected my social skills, making it harder to manage being around moderate people, whom I should be able to manage. The escape into a book habit was just too easy compared to learn to adapt to moderate people.

The reason to examine the social aspect is that many habits we have are determined by the people we are around or triggered by social situations.

Environmental

This is somewhat similar to the social above, in that environmental factors can affect us in similar ways to social situations. I can see a group of people and not feel the desire for an alcoholic drink. However if we go to play pool at the pub, I find myself ordering a drink. I know many people who point out that when they drink beer, they smoke a cigarette, even though they quit cigarettes years ago – because the two go hand in hand.

A quick shortcut our brains do is to load habits based on environmental factors. Looking at an evolutionary biology aspect – if we are in a jungle setting, we are looking for predators that are camouflaged in the foliage, and that also drop from above. When we are in a savanna setting, we are looking for only predators on the ground. These different environments promote different habit sets. We have brought this into the modern era. So I can not drink when I am at home, but I find it hard to do so at the pub – because the environment is different.

Quick Tip – Not everyone likes you, and that’s OK.

We often run around trying to make sure that everyone likes us. There is a point to doing some of that, but not as much as many people end up doing.

There are a few concepts that are useful to us here that can lead to this error. Each of these has a good point and when taken out of balance leads to bad habits.

1 – we shouldn’t be mean to people, and if we are, we will lose people who have given up putting up with us. This idea pushes us to want to change to be nicer and more wanted. 

However, when taken too far, we fall prone to people who want to take advantage of us.

To check this, changing yourself a bit to fit in is fine, changing a lot is generally bad.

2 – squeaky wheels get oiled, but all wheels need some maintenance oil. When a friend is upset, we quickly want to find out why and help do something about this. When it is because of something you did, or just a random happenstance, AND when a small to moderate thing you can do can help this, then this is a good thing to do. 

However, abusive people use fake squeaking to get more than their fair share of oil, which means we give far too much attention to trying to save these abusive people as friends, instead of putting our efforts into maintaining good friends.

To check this, remember that friends are supposed to be easy to work with and having your life. If you are spending large amounts of energy into trying to keep someone, that can be an indication that something has gone wrong. It might be worth considering letting them go.

3 – we often grow up in small families and start going to a small primary school. This helps us learn how to adapt to managing with people, because we have no real choice about who we are associating with. Learning how to adapt to people and manage incompatible people is a good skill to have.

However, there is a reasonable likelihood that none of these people are the kind of people that are good for you. There are many kinds of people and you need to find the kind that are kind to you. That may be your family and childhood friends/associates, but it also may not be. It is easy to fall into the trap of trying to hold on to people who are bad for us because we had little choice when we were young.

To check this, remember that friends should be low effort to maintain (not zero effort). Look at the people whom you are spending lots of personal energy into maintaining and wonder if you actually like them and if they are actually good for your self esteem… or not. 

Conclusion: Remember, this planet has over 7,500,000,000 people on it. You have a choice. Hang out with and spend energy on the people who do like you, instead of the people who don’t.

Sisyphus spent a great deal of time and energy trying to push that boulder up the hill
[ Friedrich John nach Matthäus Loder Sisyphus ubs G 0825 II ]

Care Fatigue – When you run out of cope

When we are in a crisis, our bodies go into overdrive to be able to put superhuman effort into survival, whether that is running, fighting, or fixing. Our brains go into overdrive along with the rest of our bodies, improving our intellect, empathy, perception and or reflexes. Sometimes our reaction is the opposite – we hide and shut down.

When the crisis is over, we come down from the hyper state and can show reactions such as fatigue, irritability, shaking and avoidance. When a crisis doesn’t abate, we stay in that heightened state. Long term crisis is bad for humans. While short term stress is good to shake things up and prompt us to get out of a slump or groove, long term stress creates unhealthy patterns, makes us more prone to illness. Our mental state can become aggressive, anxious and or depressed.

If we are not alone in the crisis, we can become care fatigued. Care fatigue is where your empathy for the suffering of others becomes overwhelming. Consequences of this are frequently being far more emotional about everything, or becoming numb to everything. We can either want to act and fix everything, or we feel powerless and just want to shut everything out and yell “la la la” until everything has gone away.

If the crisis is big and pervasive, it won’t just go away. We must act. However we can’t always act. We need to care for ourselves and take breaks, have some down time, recover our strength and then go back and push for solutions again. It is fine to turn the screens off for a few days to get some distance, before going back into the quagmire again. It is fine to let someone be wrong because this is not the fight you have the strength for. It is fine to lose your shit at someone who is being offensive occasionally, because you are too tired to be calm in the face of their irrationality. Take a breath, take a break, and then try again.

Anxiety increases when we perceive a problem that is outside of our control. As an example, I am currently witnessing reports of the East side of Australia burning and the North West side flooding. I live in the South West of Australia and can do nothing direct about these things. I am currently witnessing our countries leaders continue to deny 40 years of research on an international scale that says the problems we are experiencing are being directly contributed to by climate change. These and many more things can make me feel very powerless. And indeed, there is little to nothing I can do to directly affect these things. They are so far away and so far beyond my power to affect.

So it is important to look at what I can do. I need to make far away more local. I can and have changed the way I live to ameliorate my own impact on the climate. I can try to educate those around me to ensure that people are woke to the old science of climate change. I can support our local firies and speak to my local politicians to ensure that their future plans are green. I can attend protests and be linked in to XR (extinction rebellion) and other groups that are focused on trying to stop the destructive policies. When I can, I donate to good causes. I paid for a years worth of The Guardian online paper simply because their reporting is accurate and I want to encourage that.

When I take these actions, I feel like I am achieving something at a level that I can affect. Believe me, if I could, I would wade into Parliament and sack the lot of them. But I can’t. So it is important to look at what I can do and go and do it. In the doing, I feel better, and I can see the changes that I have made. I can then encourage others to do the same and if that works, the world will be different.

While one person cannot push back against the world of people, a world of people can push back against the threat to humanity. I can’t make every person act. But I can make me act. And if I can encourage you to join me, then that makes two of us. Now you go prompt someone to stand and act – soon it will be all of us.

Hand squishing a stress ball shaped like a brain
Stress can sometimes feel like someone is squeezing your brain