How to Change Unwanted Habits or Behaviors

According to Wikipedia a ‘habit’ is a routine of behavior that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously’.
The American Journal of Psychology (1903) defines a habit as a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience’.
The saying , ‘Old habits die hard’ may be true but it doesn’t mean they can’t be changed!
We can now explore a little deeper in to the realm of habits and how they are formed.

Every time we think, feel or do something we strengthen this Neural pathway in our brain.
It is by repetition and practice of these thoughts and behaviors that we strengthen these pathways an the habit has been formed.
Habits are, well travelled pathways and our brains find these things easy to do. So if we repeat a behavior often enough it is habit forming and when we don’t the pathway is weakened.

Most of us have experienced some sort of habit and also know how difficult it can be to change the habit. Some habits are healthy for us, for example regularly exercising, brushing our teeth after meals, personal hygiene etc. Other habits are detrimental to our health and can be damaging to relationships. It’s not just the physical habits that we have to examine but equally important is our patterns of behavior, how we habitually respond to certain situations, people.

Some examples of negative habits are when smokers automatically light up a cigarette after a meal. If they do this behavior often enough the neural pathways in the brain become stronger and the habit is formed. The longer the pattern continues the stronger the pathway and when the smoker is ever faced with a situation of not being able to have the cigarette after their meal (long haul flight) they become anxious! Why does this happen?
The reward pathway in the brain is activated when we engage in an activity that we associate with making us feel good. The brain is flooded with the neurotransmitter Dopamine, we feel good and therefore we seek to repeat this behavior.
For example if we eat a piece of delicious cake, the brain registers the thought you were thinking and remembers the thought for a future date. So the sequence is, we eat the cake, Dopamine is released, the part of the brain called the Hippocampus lays down memories of the wonderful cake eating experience and we will have a desire to eat more so we can achieve the feeling it gives us. Another part of the brain comes into play as well to help create cravings. The Amygdala’s job is to remember things like environmental cues such as places, people, sight, sounds and these can create very intense cravings for us. For example the cues such as the smell of BBQ food grilling on a lovely sunny day, the sound of people laughing having fun may trigger the craving for a glass of wine or beer if you have made the association here of fun and alcohol.

How can we change our habits?

Neuroplasticity! Neuro is to do with the brain and plasticity meaning changeable.
The field of neuroplasticity gives promise to the idea that our brains can be rewired. It requires repeated attention towards the desired change but with plenty of practice we all have the ability to rewire our brains by changing our thinking.
David Smith M.D co-author of ‘Unchain your brain’ says, “Rewiring requires setting new goals and practicing the healthy pursuit of reward while the brain is creating new pathways”.

An interesting experiment was done by Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD. MphD Prof of neurology at Harvard Medical School where a group of people were divided into two. Group A physically practiced the piano for 2 hours each day for the duration of 1 week.. Group B did not physically practice the piano but imagined practicing the exercises. When they examined the part of the brain called the motor cortex devoted to these finger movements both groups had developed.
This experiment shows that mental training has the power to change the physical structure of the brain.

Mindfulness and meditation are essential for helping the brain to create new pathways says David Smith co -author of ‘Unchain your brain’.

In real terms we know that a person who has responded to stress or stimuli the same way over a long period of time, builds a neural pathway so that when the stimuli presents itself, the brain and body automatically goes to that response. The more we respond to the stimuli in the same way the stronger the synaptic connections become in the brain. The connections can become so strongly linked that it takes very little to get them firing. What fires together
wires together!

Jeffrey Schwartz and Sharon Begley- ‘The brain and mind neuroplasticity and the power of mental force say ‘Applied mindfulness cn change neural circuitry”.

Change is possible. We can rewire our brains. First of all we need to name the negative or undesired habit, smoking,drinking, gambling, procrastination, habitual anger etc. The next time the negative /obsessive thought arises call it what is is. ‘This is my urge to eat……
Ask yourself the question, ‘Why has this come up for me right now? What triggered this urge? What happened just before I had the thought?
We can then become the observer of our thoughts and not the victim.

The best way to change our neural pathway is to change our actions. In other words if we are involved in a behavior that is negative or is having a negative impact on our life we need to first and foremost Stop! Our goal is to build a new neural pathway to replace the old destructive, compulsive addictive one. The more we fire the neurones on the new pathway the weaker the old ones become.

Remember ‘What fires together, wires together, therefore if we don’t fore we don’t wire’!.

We must pay attention to the moment the urge for the behavior arises. In that split second after the urge arises in our mind and before we engage in the habit we are trying to change we have the ability to refocus attention on another behavior, a healthier behavior that serves you better. When planning on changing a habit that is no longer healthy first choose the healthier response ahead of time,one that will produce thoughts and feelings that are pleasurable and healthy.

The good news is,brain scans have actually shown that the firing of previous pathways die out when they are not stimulated. What doesn’t fire dies!

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