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?