How to Retrain Your Brain to Break Bad Habits

There’s an interesting article today on Huffington Post about how bad habits get wired into our brains, and how we overestimate our capacity to resist their temptation.

Now, this isn’t meant to be a total New Year’s resolution buzzkill. In fact quite the opposite. If we understand just how powerful our bad habits can be, perhaps it will help empower us to stay the course. From the post:

“Why are bad habits stronger? You’re fighting against the power of an immediate reward,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway.

It’s the fudge vs. broccoli choice: Chocolate’s yum factor tends to beat out the knowledge that sticking with veggies brings an eventual reward of lost pounds.

“We all as creatures are hard-wired that way, to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that’s delayed,” Volkow says.

The article goes on to discuss the role of dopamine in conditioning the brain to behave badly, and how we are triggered by environmental cues to do the very things we swear off. You know, like pour a drink and light a cigarette during an episode of Mad Men or gorge on popcorn at the movie theatre even if we’re not hungry. It’s interesting to hear what a big part dopamine plays in compounding these fairly obvious patterns.

What’s more compelling to us though, is the expert advice on how to actually change patterns, in your life and eventually in your brain. Here’s what they culled from the brain pros:

—Repeat, repeat, repeat the new behavior – the same routine at the same time of day. Resolved to exercise? Doing it at the same time of the morning, rather than fitting it in haphazardly, makes the striatum recognize the habit so eventually, “if you don’t do it, you feel awful,” says Volkow the neuroscientist, who’s also a passionate runner.

—Exercise itself raises dopamine levels, so eventually your brain will get a feel-good hit even if your muscles protest.

—Reward yourself with something you really desire, Volkow stresses. You exercised all week? Stuck to your diet? Buy a book, a great pair of jeans, or try a fancy restaurant—safer perhaps than a box of cookies because the price inhibits the quantity.

—Stress can reactivate the bad-habit circuitry. “You see people immediately eating in the airport when their flight is canceled,” Volkow points out.

—And cut out the rituals linked to your bad habits. No eating in front of the TV, ever.

They had me at jeans and fancy restaurant, but not eating in front of the television is a tough one for me! What about you? Do you think you can you follow this advice?

7 Responses to “How to Retrain Your Brain to Break Bad Habits”
  1. Tosha Arnout says:

    I love this post! We can change our brains. I revert to bad habits when I am stressed and gorge on popcorn. I am going to attempt to exercise in the morning.

  2. ComaGirl says:

    My spouse and I were discussing just this very thing earlier today, but it was in relation to how many people at the gym on Jan 2nd and why people taper off, lose motivation, etc. We concluded that it has more to do with expectations, instant gratification and an inability to make exercise and heatlthy living a life style instead of a hobby. The article explains all of this perfectly.

    My stress comes in when I haven’t worked out for a couple of days due to some unforeseen event. I fear that I will fall back into old patterns and stop working out all together. It was a relief to see that repeat, repeat, repeat is also their mantra backed by scientific evidence, I presume.

  3. ComaGirl says:

    I hope I’m not offending anyone by saying this, but if I had to be in an experiment where watching the movie “Coffee and Cigarettes”, I’d take on just about every bad habit out there, (including smoking the entire pack of cigarettes in front of me, although I don’t smoke), just to excape watching that particular movie. Not exactly a good selection for their research. Myabe that’s why people felt the need to hold on to the pack like a security blanket. Hehehe.

  4. Steffie says:

    I remember reading somewhere that it takes 27 times to make a new habit. That’s only a month of daily work outs to make a new habit. Maybe less if you’re trying to break another habit like chewing fingernails.

    Even if that’s not the right figure, I still hold on to it, because it seems encouraging. Placebo effects win!

  5. reese says:

    My biggest bad eating habit is reading while eating… I’m even constantly getting spaghetti sauce and stuff on my books! It’s really hard to learn to eat mindfully!! I suppose counting chews, savoring flavors, making interesting meals would help…
    I did grow up watching TV during dinner, snacking after school while watching cartoons, etc… so the habit has just gone from TV to books/mags…
    I am working on routine to beat my bad habits: instead of smoking a cig on the way to work/making it a habit to sing a song… instead of waking up at the last moment, using at least 30 minutes every morning to do SOME sort of exerise…etc
    The hardest thing for me; too, is keeping good habits when my “sched” gets thrown off… Can’t eat dinner at home tonight? Ruins the whole week. Sleep in one day? Don’t work out all week. etc etc
    Biggest thing? Focusing on myself. 23 and single, only time in my life I may have this opportunity.

  6. Raquel says:

    Love any information that involves changing the way we program our brains.
    Thanks so much for this fantastic post.

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