Trying to Break a Bad Habit? Here’s How
Christina Sarich, Staff Writer
“The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” – Albert Camus in The Plague
That bad habit you have been trying to break is likely causing you consternation for more reasons than you think. Perhaps you’ve sworn to yourself that you would stop being late for appointments, or binge eating ice cream at 3 in the morning, but you can’t seem to change. It is likely due to a delicate dance going on between your neuronal synapses. There is a way to re-wire them, in effect, but it helps to understand what caused your brain to develop that habit to begin with.
Any action you take develops into the opportunity to repeat itself almost robot-like via your neurochemistry. Neuronal synapses are reinforced by their use through the production of acetylcholine. When we stop doing a particular thing, those neuronal pathways shrink, with conductive layers actually dissolving, so that new pathways can be formed.
What can make this process a little more challenging is when someone experiences a traumatic event. This causes a permanent hypersensitive pathway to be created – using a different chemical that does not dissolve so easily.
The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) says that over 40 million people in the US over the age of 18 suffer from some anxiety-related disorder, and those are just the people who have been diagnosed or whose symptoms fit into a pre-described condition. Millions more go undiagnosed. Arguably, these are people with a habitual mental pattern that can be reconfigured.
Research published in the journal Neuron details how N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors on dopamine neurons in the brain’s basal ganglia are essential to the formation of habits. These receptors act like gateways to the brain cells, letting in electrically charged ions to increase the activity and communication of neurons.
Neuroscientist Dr. Lei Phillip Wang describes these cells like a computer’s central processing unit:
“The NMDA receptor is a commander, which is why it’s called a master switch for brain cell connectivity.”
MIT scientists have also identified a region of the brain that can switch between old and new habits. This means that a habit which becomes ‘unconscious’ and therefore hard to break, is an old, outdated assumption.
Unconsciousness and Bad Habits
The Yoga Sutras tell us, “. . .instinct is a trace of an old experience that has been repeated many times and the impressions have sunk down to the bottom of the mental lake. Although they go down, they aren’t completely erased. Don’t think you ever forget anything. All experiences are stored in the chittam; and, when the proper atmosphere is created, they come to the surface again. When we do something several times it forms a habit. Continue with that habit for a long time, and it becomes your character. Continue with that character and eventually, perhaps in another life, it comes up as instinct.”
When we continue to behave in ways that don’t serve us, ways that we consciously want to change, but feel an incredible resistance to undo, the action is usually based in the unconscious mind. It was likely a behavior formed in order to protect us emotionally from some frightening or painful experience, or, it simply paid off in some way that we don’t consciously acknowledge.
When you pick up the phone out of guilt to talk to someone who always brings you down, for example, that emotional response pays some dividend to you, even if you don’t consciously realize it, and you outwardly despise the caller. Until you uncover the true motive for keeping yourself entangled in the conversation with that person, you won’t be able to undo it. Staying ‘unconscious’ simply allows you to continue to ‘benefit’ from the exchange even if you bemoan it consciously.
For example, if your best friend is constantly asking you for a loan, but never pays you back, and instead uses your money to buy cigarettes or go on lavish vacations when they can’t pay their rent, and you feel annoyed by that behavior, do you perhaps get a thrill from ‘saving’ someone from their own bad habits. Do you feel more ‘righteous’ because you handle your money or your life better? Do you get a little egoic high from being ‘better’ than they are? These are subconscious ticks that could be keeping this bad habit of lending out money to people who are irresponsible going – and though you complain about it, you subconsciously get a big thrill out of the action!
This is just one example of many possible behaviors, and we all have these ‘unsavory’ programs, but while we are complaining about the realities of life, we often don’t realize we have more control over the habits that create our experiences than one might imagine.
Meditation to Become Conscious
I have truckloads of anecdotal stories of my own and plenty more from friends who practice mindfulness which point to a sudden dissolution of bad habits. It doesn’t matter how sinister the habit is – drug addictions, alcohol abuse, and more.
Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. talks about why meditation can even help break habits as severe as drug or alcohol addiction:
“It makes sense why more and more addiction centers are integrating mindfulness into their curriculum. Mindfulness practice has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex and cool down the amygdala. This gives us the ability to widen the space between stimulus and response where choice lies and access possibilities and opportunities we didn’t know were there before.This is crucial when it comes to our addictive behaviors to take a step back, “think through the drink” and recognize the various options that lie before us.
“. . . We can learn to step into the pause, notice the sensation of the urge that’s there and as the late Alan Marlatt, Ph.D. said, “
surf the urge” as it peaks, crests and falls back down like a wave in the ocean.”
You see experience is not created from a lack of will, but of self-discipline born of —- HABIT. (You can see where this is going.) In order to break up a habit pattern, you usually have to see it first, and then it becomes harder to perpetuate an action that you don’t want because you then have the ability to start a new pattern in its place. Our lazy minds don’t always recognize that the 17,000 hours we practice learning to play a musical instrument or the 5 hours we listen to a good friend’s dreams and goals will pay huge dividends. They just want instant gratification. This is where the practice – notice the word – practice – of mindfulness can rescue us from bad habits.
You see you already have incredible self-discipline. You are creating your experience right now by doing the same thing over and over again. Whether it is a ‘good’ experience or a ‘bad’ one is almost irrelevant. You have disciplined your mind to think and react in a certain way. When you start to slow down the “thinking” that the mind does – its automatic reactions to the world via meditation, yoga, Thai Qi, etc., you allow yourself to determine if those patterns are actually working for you or not. The most ingrained habit becomes conscious like a bubble floating to the surface of your mind, and you can choose what to do or not do about it.
If you want to change a habit that your mind perceives as uncomfortable, normally it will wiggle, jump, run, sigh, or cry its way out of changing. Not so much with meditation. You see the habit of thinking for what it is without attaching any emotional response to it, and you suddenly have an objective awareness of things you are doing in your day (weeks, months, years) that help you achieve your goals, or hinder you.
Studies corroborated by Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the university’s $10 million W.M. Keck Laboratory for Functional Brain Imaging and Behavior show that meditation profoundly alters the brain wave activity in the prefrontal cortex. In fact, Tibetan Monks who participated in his study, focusing on gamma wave production, showed that those who had meditated for years were able to learn, focus and enhance their memories far greater than the casual meditator – no wonder these monks don’t seem to have many bad habits. They are able, with a highly trained mind, to change their habits practically at will. How do they do this?
You could say that meditation allows a ‘gap’ in your thinking long enough for you to realize how you are thinking and then the ability to find motivation to change.
Dr. Wayne Dyer, sometimes called “the father of motivation”, has said something to this effect – when you listen (rearrange the letters) in the silence, you make conscious contact with God. And I say – God doesn’t allow you to remain stuck in bad habits.
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”~ Aristotle
The Lazy Way to Make New Habits
With the information you glean from meditation sessions and simple a-ha moments that come from mindfulness practices you can then break old habits and form new ones. Here’s how:
- Write down the old habit and what triggers you to act, speak, or think in the way that holds it in place.
- Write down an alternative behavior, or thought. This is what will become your practice, your self-discipline to create a new habit that will replace the old one.
- Every time you notice yourself about to engage in or actively engaging in the old ‘bad’ habit, replace it with the new action or thought that you wrote down. Do this for at least 30 days. If you can redirect yourself for 66 days, you will have successfully broken the bad habit, as evidenced here.
- Don’t try to change more than one bad habit simultaneously. If you do, it is often too much cognitive dissonance to keep with it. While some people may be able to wipe out a whole host of bad habits with simply a desire to do so, most of us aren’t conscious enough to realize what it motivating each action. As an additional boon to replacing one bad habit, though, you will often see your life change in positive ways that you weren’t expecting. You will also build your confidence in your ability to change your patterns and create new ones.
- Start with smaller bad habits, say, like making sure you eat breakfast every day so that you don’t want to binge on sweets and simple carbohydrates before lunch time arrives, rather than trying to undo a lifetime of a much more profound bad habits like lying, stealing, cheating, etc.
- Release your need to control the outcome of your ‘habit breaking’ and just stick to the replacement of worn out ideas and actions on a day-to-day basis.
Relinquishing Control of a Habit in the Brain
The brain’s executive command center apparently doesn’t relinquish control of habitual behavior. A small region of the brain’s prefrontal cortex, where most thought and planning occurs, is responsible for moment-by-moment control of which habits are switched on at a given time. This gives new credence for ‘being in the moment’ and also the key to undoing habits which don’t serve us, and installing habits that are more productive.
“Habit is a man’s sole comfort. We dislike doing without even unpleasant things to which we have become accustomed.” – Goethe
One study has shown that even with dopamine chemicals driving habits, and deeply ingrained patterns being hard-wired, as they say, into the brain,interfering with a part of the prefrontal cortex known as the infralimbic (IL) cortex can help to undo these unwanted blueprints.
Of course this same technique, which is really the same thing as ‘finding the gap,’ can apply to every habitual pattern we have created for ourselves. If we can take a moment when we have a thought like “I can’t” or “that’s too hard” and replace that thought with another, soon our mental landscape is a lot more conducive to achieving our heart’s desires.
“Fresh activity is the only means of overcoming adversity.” – Goethe
It isn’t just meditators that form new, better habits through neuroplasticity, but it seems to augment the process.
When you view the brains of people who frequently practice playing the violin under fMRI (functional MRI), for example, they appear to have developed a larger area of their brain devoted to mapping their fingers. This change is directly related to the quantity and the quality of the practice they’re performing – their brains are adapting in very real and tangible ways unbeknownst to them.
Are you using your mind to learn something new or create profound experiences, or are you using your mind to stay stuck where you are now? Both actions are habits.
You can use these same processes of adaptation to change your bad habits. You are really just 66 days away from being a completely new you.
About the Author
Christina Sarich is a musician, yogi, humanitarian and freelance writer who channels many hours of studying Lao Tzu, Paramahansa Yogananda, Rob Brezny, Miles Davis, and Tom Robbins into interesting tidbits to help you Wake up Your Sleepy Little Head, and *See the Big Picture*. Her blog is Yoga for the New World . Her latest book is Pharma Sutra: Healing The Body And Mind Through The Art Of Yoga. Please reprint this article with attribution bio and all links in tact.
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