Can’t Help Yourself – Habits and the Brain

Can’t Help Yourself – Habits and the Brain

There are times in our lives when we want to change the way we do things. We may discover a health issue, and need to change the way we eat, or have had an injury, and need to change the way we exercise, or we might want to give up smoking. Regardless of what it is we are trying to change, there will be habits that we have formed which we need to change, and replace with new habits.

There is a school of thought that it takes, on average, 68 days for form a new habit. But depending on the habit, and the person it can in fact take anything from between 18 and 254 days! That’s a great big difference. But how do habits actually form? And how do we make new ones? Like pretty much everything, it starts in our brain.

A bit about the brain

The brain is made up of a number of different areas, each of which is responsible for certain aspects of our bodies and behavior. Often, there is a crossover where more than one area of the brain is involved. This seems to be the case with habit forming.

The striatum is part of the basal ganglia, and this is where habits are formed. This area is also responsible for the development of emotions, memories and pattern recognition. However, decision making is done in the prefrontal cortex – specifically the infralimbic seems to be responsible for managing ‘automatic’ behavior.

Habits and the Brain

Often we see a habit as one action – for example, cleaning our teeth. However, it is actually a set of specific movements performed in sequence – picking up the toothbrush, putting on the toothpaste, brushing in a habitual pattern, and so on. You get the picture. You do these things on autopilot, without thinking about it. But if you did think about it, you would notice that you do the same thing in the same sequence pretty much every time. Recent studies suggest that what our brain does here is ‘chunking’. Some brain cells ‘bookend’ the habitual actions, so when we first start a doing a new task, the neurons in the striata emit a continuous string of signals, but once it becomes a habit these signals are only fired at the beginning and end of the task – almost like a stop/go directive. This is why it is so hard to break a habit; once the ‘go’ signal has been sent, the sequence plays out. This playing out of the initiated sequence is managed by different brain cells called ‘interneurons’. It seems these interneurons prevent the principle neurons from initiating a new sequence, until the previous one is complete.

Studies in rats suggest that by turning off the infralimbic cortex, the brain moves from ‘automatic’ to a more engaged, actively cognitive mode, and the habitual behavior is dropped, allowing a new habit to form. Interestingly, if the infralimbic cortex is turned off again, the new habit is dropped, but the old one is reactivated. From this we can deduce that the IC is responsible for deciding which habit to express, and that old habits aren’t really ‘broken’, rather they are suppressed by new ones.

When actions become habits

Psychologically, habits form in a loop. There are three aspects to a habit:

  1. The cue or trigger – what it is that makes you undertake the habit. Let’s use brushing your teeth again. The cue might be getting out of the shower, finishing breakfast, putting your pyjamas on.
  2. The behaviour itself. Which is generally performed in the same way and the same order, every time.
  3. The reward. In the case of brushing your teeth it is minty fresh breath. But for addictions, for instance, it is the ‘high’ created by the drug or activity.

How to Rewrite a Habit

As we have said, habits are not really ‘broken’, just overwritten by new ones. So, how do we go about doing that?

They key is in the cue or trigger. It has been identified that changing a habit is often easier when you are on holidays. This makes since our regular routines are disrupted when we are away from home. Beyond that, you need to think about when it is you undertake the habitual behaviour. For instance, if you are a smoker, do you always have a cigarette on your lunch break, or when you have a glass of wine. If that is the case, changing the triggers can help with changing the habitual behaviour. It is also important to overwrite the old behaviour with something new. So for smokers, it might be drinking a glass of water or doing a short exercise – but it needs to be something that provides some sort of ‘reward’.

Exercise as a Habit

Our Chiropractors, Massage Therapists and Podiatrist often prescribe exercises for you to do between appointments, and for lots of patients this presents a challenge. ‘Finding’ time in a busy schedule to do exercises can be difficult. At the start of the process, try and find a time that connects to something you do every day – like cleaning your teeth. This can be the trigger. The reward, of course, is an improvement in your condition or reduction in pain. But if you need further reward, kick in something that you really enjoy – maybe something you like to eat, or a tv show that you love to watch – as a reward. In no time at all, those exercises will become second nature and you will be doing them on autopilot.

If you are having trouble creating a habit, or kicking one, call our Sydney Hills district Clinic on 9639 7337 to have a chat with one of our expert practitioners.

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