Why Changing Habits is so Difficult

Just as we know some habits are good for us, we know others are bad for us. Breaking a habit can not only be difficult, but we may feel discouraged by the habits we form. While all habits aren’t bad, starting new healthy habits can be equally difficult. So why is it so hard to change our habits? How are habits formed and how do they affect our mental health? 

How Habits are Formed 

The basal ganglia is a part of the forebrain that is identified in controlling voluntary movements or better known as our motor control functioning. Did you know that it may also play a part in emotional expression? 

Ann Graybiel, a professor at MIT, believes that it may be more than meets the eye. She theorized that the basal ganglia help us develop habits and allows them to be set on “automatic.” 

When habits are formed our brain responds by firing off neurons. Actions that are repeated more frequently cause those neurons to fire more often, thereby forming habits. The continued firing of these neurons can make it quite difficult to give up something at the drop of a hat.

You may know Ivan Pavlov, B.F. Skinner or Albert Bandura for their contributions to classical conditioning, operant conditioning, and observational learning, respectively. Essentially, addictions or habits revolve around triggers, behaviors, and rewards. 

Pavlov, head of classical conditioning, was a famous Russian physiologist known best for his work with pairing various stimuli with dogs. He experimented with the pairing of two stimuli to create a new learned response. 

Skinner on the other hand experimented with operant conditioning. He’s known for his study of rats and the results of the reward-punishment system. 

Finally, Bandura believed that we learn behaviors from a young age and incorporate them into who we are. Imitation is a key factor in human functioning, even babies mimic and imitate what is modeled to them whether it be speech or learning how to walk. These nuggets of insight eventually became foundational for the social learning theory Bandura would soon go on to develop. 

 How Habits Affect Our Mental Health

Good mental health is important because it encompasses how we think, feel, and interact with others. It can also determine how we handle difficult situations. When you don’t take care of your mind, things can spiral out of control, causing problems in all aspects of your life. Poor habits can increase our risk of depression, for example, or cause us to feel more anxious or stressed out.     

The structure habits provide is one of the major psychological benefits. It’s when habits become rigid that problems can arise. An unhealthy habit should raise your concern if it feels like it has more power over you than you do over it. But there is hope.

Two factors have proven to be highly effective in helping invoke behavioral change: incentives and accountability. Incentives assist in motivating change, while accountability helps to reinforce new habits. 

Habits are not just behavioral, they are also mental. The habits we develop affect our memory, our cravings, and the behaviors we engage in, in order to obtain our desired results. Thankfully, research shows us that our brain is wired in such a way that it can heal itself, change, and adapt through a process called neuroplasticity. 

Breaking Our Habits

Rerouting our brain can take time and the will to change can dwindle. We often want a change when we are at our boiling point. “I’ll never do this again,” or “I’ll start tomorrow.” Sound familiar? 

These thoughts usually plague us when we are overcome by shame, guilt, disappointment, disgust, and loathing. We can reduce the impact of these feelings by starting the journey of change before getting to that boiling point. If we can control our habits before they evolve into addictions or disorders, greater freedom can be obtained. 

To start, there are three steps we can take to gain control of a habit.

  1. Take a step back and disconnect yourself from the overly ritualized aspect of the behavior by slowly backing off of it.
  2. Replace the habit with something meaningful.
  3. Give yourself space to address the underlying issue that drives you to the habit.

The goal is not to merely survive, but to thrive. While our habits can sometimes make us feel alienated, our hope for you is to experience restoration. 

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