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.