“How do patterns develop and stick? What does my ability to make some good habits and struggle with others say about me? How can I break bad habits and create healthier ones?”
Seven years ago, I lost 92 pounds. During the two-and-a-half-years it took me to lose the weight, I made many new healthy habits that I still have, like regular exercise and eating more veggies. In the past two years, I regained about seven pounds, and I was kinda okay with that. Then, this year, I added another ten.
The old “bad” habits I thought I had conquered—like emotional eating, rewarding myself with food, and portion control—had, to a degree, boomeranged back, while some newer habits, like tracking my food and going to weekly Weight Watchers meetings, had slipped away.
So now I’m back to counting, back to meetings, and back to asking the big questions: How do patterns or habits—the good, the bad, the mystifying—develop and stick? What does my ability to make some good habits and struggle with others say about me? Do I somehow lack “discipline” or “motivation”? How can I break bad habits and create healthier ones?
And healthy habits don’t just pertain to diet and exercise. How do we floss more? Spend less time on social media and our smartphones and more time with friends and family? Get more sleep and lower our stress? Keep to our monthly budget? Get to work on time?
As neuroscience has advanced, more has been discovered about how our brains form the neural loops that make a habit, and the startling truth, asCharles Durhigg’s best-selling 2014 book The Power of Habit noted, is this: we can’t really break bad habits, but we can change them, with a better understanding of brain plasticity.
WHAT IS BRAIN PLASTICITY?
In simple terms, plasticity means our brains are capable of change. It was once thought our flexible young minds “hardened” as we aged, but we now know that the adult mind is capable of great plasticity if we practice activities that renew it.
Scientists formerly believed that parts of the brain were “hardwired” for certain functions—one area for motor skills, another for language, for example; we now know that’s not the case. The brain can learn to rewire and repurpose certain areas, much in the way your mom turned your childhood bedroom into her craft room after you left for college. Plasticity is why someone who is deaf can increase the quality of their other senses; it is how the Burmese sea gypsy tribes are able to lower their heart rates for deep water diving, staying underwater twice as long as most swimmers, and increase their ability to see clearly underwater. Plasticity has allowed some stroke victims to relearn how to walk and use their limbs after the original brain areas housing those purposes were damaged.
Plasticity is a double-edged sword, however. University of Chicago’s Dr. Paul Vezina, a neuroscientist who specializes in appetitive behaviors, points out that the brain doesn’t distinguish a “good habit” from a “bad” one; its major task is survival, in terms of our most basic living functions. He notes there are two types of associations the brain makes: an appetitive association (positive stimuli—makes you want more) vs. a negative association. The brain uses both types of associations for your well-being, although the two will illicit different responses, including chemical ones.
Since my teens, food has been my panacea for all ills. During my parents’ divorce, I used food as a way of comforting myself; as a reward for surviving a long day at a new middle school where I had no friends. The dopamine hit I got from methodically dismantling a buttercreme-layered petite four, or settling in front of the TV with a lap full of pasta and garlic bread, gave me a respite from my depression and loneliness, at least for a few hours. This cycle continued for decades until, at 36, I decided my unhappiness with my body trumped my food addiction.
Brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin can play critical roles in “rewarding” us for making a habit, and can make a habit—like exercising or overeating—stick, because of the pleasurable feelings they associate with the habit. Habits that involve ingesting food, or drugs like nicotine, cocaine, heroin, and caffeine, bring chemicals into play that also affect the brain and the creation of habits.
When thinking about making changes to the habits we feel are unhealthy, we will want to examine if the habit itself involves a chemical reward, if it has an appetitive or negative association, and how this might challenge or help us to make the changes we desire. Then we can examine the other factors that make a habit stick.
WHAT IS A HABIT?
Habits make up about 40% of our daily routines, and can be seen as systems of repeated behavior triggered by contextual factors. Context factors can be related to almost anything; time, place, the people we see at work or in our families, cultural and societal factors, or a complex of any of these that our brains note are part of a repeating pattern.
You might think of a habit like a rut made by a sled down a snowy hill. The more frequently your sled runs the path you first made, the deeper the groove, the faster the trip, and also, the harder it is to change course once you’ve pushed off from the same starting spot. All of which sucks, if your sled first ran into a tree. Context factors here might include the weather (lots of snow), excitement of friends and perhaps an approaching holiday, even the fact that you have a sled available.
“I don’t know that it’s really possible to break a bad habit, “says Vezina. “One can extinguish responses, but there is evidence that traces of the responses remain. There could be reinstating triggers that then could bring those responses back.”
Using food as a way to show love is an old pattern for me, and cooking for my boyfriend gave me an excuse to overindulge. Valentine’s Day, his birthday, and my birthday came (all in the same week!) and pretty quickly I was slipping back in the old ruts. Combine with a polar vortex that shut down my winter biking routine, stir in schedule changes that reduced gym visits, and suddenly, crash. Ten more pounds.
When making changes in our habits, Vezina emphasizes that being aware of context factors is key, as it allows you to take actions that will help avoid triggers to the old habit. Repeat these actions regularly enough, over long-enough a period, and it gets easier to bend that habit in a new direction.
It’s been three weeks since my guy joined me doing Weight Watchers. He’s down eight pounds and I’m down four (grumble, grumble about the male metabolism). Making the decision to lose the weight wasn’t hard, but it took an awareness of my triggers, and the difficult decision to ask my partner for help (he’d gained ten pounds, too) to get us both on track.
We know we’re likely to want “reward dinner” at the end of a long day, so we plan healthy meals for most nights, and shop in advance. TV was a long-time companion to my overeating and I had eliminated cable from my life a few years back, but Jeff tended to watch TV nightly when we met; snuggling on the couch while a show was on made it too easy to want snacks and drinks in my empty hands. When Jeff moved in, we decided to get a minimal cable package, and to devote some nights to reading, and at least one to the gym, resulting in a noticeable difference in our evening snacking.
The belief that it takes 21 days to make/break a habit appears to have come from some self-help works published in the early 1970’s. A more recent study from the European Journal of Social Psychology puts the number at 66 days, after continuous activity, but acknowledged that there are a wide variety of factors that can make that number lower or higher. If we can identify and be more aware of those variables, and utilize techniques we now know help the brain to learn the new or changed habit, we can exert more control over triggering factors and ensure a higher rate of success.
The more you run that sled down that same path, encounter those same contexts, the more likely it is you’ll keep hitting that tree. But if you examine the unfortunate sled trajectory prior to your push off, make some crucial adjustments to the context (like trying a new sled, going to another side of the hill, or making some changes to the trough), you may be able to change the direction that sled goes: to disrupt the original path, and bend it so you get a different outcome.
“The issue there, though,” Vezina adds, “is that you never know when or if you’ll be surprised by a chance encounter with a trigger. Then you have a problem.”
HABITS THAT HARM
Professor Karyn Freedman understands all too well how triggers work. In her book One Hour in Paris: A True Story of Rape and Recovery, she charts how a brutal rape created anxiety and trauma patterns which she suffered for years before understanding these reactions were part of her brain’s attempts to protect her in situations it deemed threatening due to similarities to contexts of the rape.
While severe anxiety and PTSD are certainly more extreme and complex than a nightly urge for ice cream, both habit patterns—and treatment patterns—have much in common in terms of how the brain views them.
Brain plasticity means we are highly susceptible to attaining habits and patterns, and the more we “practice” a habit, the more efficient the brain becomes at making it stick. For neural behavioral patterns that come as a result of a negative association, like a traumatic event, retracing the original pattern of behavior is key. This also means patterns of behavior that have been around longer will be more challenging—but not impossible—to bend.
Through somatic therapy, which involved physically acting out aspects of the rape in order to train her brain to break old patterns, Freedman learned to change the narrative of the actual situation and rewrite the event in a way that helped her manage triggered responses and begin recovery. Such techniques are also used in OCD behavioral patterns, and for Body Focused Repetitive Disorders (BFRP’s) like skin picking (SPD or Excoriation Disorder) and hair pulling (trichotillomania).
Somatic therapy uses a wide variety of techniques including sound, touch, mirroring, movement and breath to rewire the brain’s habitual reactions to triggers beyond our control. Professional therapists are best at handling more serious habits that harm, but aspects of these therapies can help anyone trying to bend a habit.
For me, part of the trigger with TV involves free hands. Vezina notes this type of overeating isn’t an issue of “willpower,” nor am I somehow subliminally trying to sabotage myself. My brain is simply playing a rerun cued by context.
STEPS TO RETRAINING YOUR BRAIN
Our habits are part of us, but we don’t have to be defined by them. Once we recognize how they are triggered and rewarded, even the most ingrained habit is possible to change.
One thing that can help us avoid repeatedly sledding down the same bad route is current scientific findings about the power of writing things down. Vezina notes that while the effect of writing on habits is not his area of expertise, the scientific community has noted that there is “something magical about writing.” Writing and visualization techniques which call upon aspects of somatic therapy help us train the brain to see a more successful habit or pattern.
Over the last few years, evidence has mounted to how writing things down—and better yet, by hand—can make changes in how our brains function. The brain doesn’t differentiate between the imagined visualization and the real deal: practicing “seeing” a successful habit can retrain our brains. So grab a notebook and a pen, and get ready to make some changes.
Step 1. Recognize the habit.What’s the habit you’d like to change? Write down the goal for yourself. I want to quit smoking. I want to measure my food portions. I want to spend less time checking my phone. I would like to feel less anxiety in meetings. If establishing a new habit, same thing goes: I want to go to the gym three times a week for a 40-minute workout.
Step 2. Determine the trigger factors (context), pattern of behavior, and the reward—and yes, this is probably the hardest part. Write a flow chart of how it happens and where it leads. Long day at work—not enough lunch—tired—stressed—home late—no time to cook—order takeout—overeat because I’m too hungry. Other triggers: bored, lonely, upset, TV on, Chinese place around corner, etc.
Step 3. Write or Rewrite the story. See yourself performing your new or improved habit. Give existing habits you don’t like a new consequence. Start with one healthy consequence. Once you’ve got that one under your belt, perhaps add another.
I’m on the couch watching a show and I want to eat. Chips, popcorn, anything, even though I know I’m not really hungry. I get up, and grab the new knitting needles and soft cashmere yarn I bought in my favorite color. I am learning to knit a scarf, and will consider it a sign of my success in choosing to create something while also keeping my body fit and healthy.
Step 4. Read your story aloud. Visualize it. Add details. Maybe read your story to a supportive friend or partner. Hearing it in your voice can help cement the images in your mind and train your brain. The scarf is a beautiful teal color, and the knitting needles feel cool and smooth. I love the feel of cashmere, and it makes me think of fall, and the smell of burning leaves. When the scarf is done, someone will stop me to compliment me on it, and I will feel proud telling them I made it.
Step 5. Practice and Repeat.Put the story into action. Live it, and note where life throws you curve balls.
Step 6. Anticipate failure. Practice writing the story with alternate versions. What possible challenges might you face? My first scarf sucks. I’m frustrated with my skill level, so I dig out my old colored pencils and now leave them and a sketchbook near the couch. I see myself doing this often, sketching little images and doodles—something I used to do for fun. I manage to keep my hands occupied more and more often. Eventually, my knitting improves. Now I have a knitting basket and my sketchbook available wherever I am relaxing.
Step 7. Increase Brain Plasticity. Keeping our brains facile and healthy goes a long way toward our ability to make changes. Things that can help: physical activity, sleep (enough and quality), eating healthy, social connections, exploring new experiences and being creative, reducing stress, meditation, and practicing brain games and apps. Ideally, do a little bit of all of these things for maximum benefits.