Your brain is a complex and wondrous thing. It is an evolved neural network that can do things that computer programmers only dream of doing. You can analyse, prioritise and emotionalise all on autopilot. You can identify objects on sight, and you can make assumptions based on prior perceptions. Your wondrous brain has trillions of neural networks firing and wiring into habitual thoughts, emotional reactions, instincts, urges, and behaviours.
Some habits improve your life, and some do not. Breaking an unhelpful one can be incredibly challenging, but with the specific strategies and a little effort, you can replace unhelpful with helpful habits!
Habits form with the repetitive use of neural connections that trigger the same heightened emotional states, thinking patterns and actions. When those neural connections fire together, they 'wire' together, and that network becomes an automated response to a trigger. The more often you repeat that sequence, the less effort and focus it takes to perform the habitual response.
Heightened emotions put your brain into a very receptive learning state, allowing neural connections to develop faster. The most successful brain training methods should stimulate emotional and sensory activation to enhance neural growth (brain learning). You can put your mind into a learning state by focusing aligned thoughts, emotions and sensations to achieve a specific outcome. Imagining 'as if' your desired result already exists, 'fires and wires' the neural network and your fantastic brain 'remembers' new behaviours more readily.
Recent studies in neuroplasticity show that to create a fully automated habit, you need to persist firing and wiring the neural connections associated for between three months to a year.
Habits can be broken up into three stages:
To understand this more clearly, let's use two examples, the habits of smoking and exercising.
Smoking Habit: Stage one is the cue such as a coffee break or seeing or smelling someone else smoking. This signal triggers your brain to activate the neural networks that stimulate the thought "I want a cigarette." Next is the routine. You feel the urge, go outside, take out your cigarettes, pull out your lighter, light up and begin to smoke. The odds are that you do this the same way every single time with the same order or actions. You use the same hand to take the cigarette out of the packet, ignite the lighter, choosing the same brand of cigarettes, holding the smoke the same way. Then comes the reward, within two seconds the nicotine reaches your brain, and the emotional response gets stimulated. When this sequence repeats, the cue, routine and reward pattern becomes automatic.
Exercise Habit: Now let's use the helpful habit of going for a run or walk. First, you have the cue. The cue could be the clock striking 6:30, your usual time. The routine; put your running clothes on, lace up your shoes, get your headphones and music setup, and you walk out the door. Ofen you don't even deviate from a specific route. Your reward: your exercise releases endorphins. That feels good; you feel proud that you did it, elated as a result of endorphin release.
The difference between these two habits is that the exercise habit requires a little more effort on your part. Positive habits often need more of your energy and time than unhelpful habits. Which would you say takes less effort, grabbing a chocolate bar from the vending machine at the office or preparing a healthy snack to take to work? The chocolate bar requires less time and effort and gives you a quicker, sweet reward. But you know that creating a habit of choosing healthier snacks will provide better rewards in the long run.
The Basal Ganglia is the part of your brain that is responsible for the development of memory, emotion, and pattern recognition, three essential ingredients for the formation of habits. Decision making, on the other hand, is performed in the prefrontal cortex.
An interesting thing happens when you 'fall into a habit.' The Basal Ganglia kicks into action, and the prefrontal cortex takes a backseat. No decision making is necessary when you 'fall into a habit,' as your brain has activated autopilot. This automated response can be beneficial for helpful habitual learned behavior such as parallel parking, as you no longer need to concentrate super hard on doing it. The automation becomes a problem though when it comes to wanting to change or stop a bad habit such as biting your fingernails.
Once your brain has programmed an unhelpful habit, it can be tough to break it. Your mind essentially goes into autopilot when subjected to specific stimuli (the cue). So you need to use a higher level of concentration and effort to suspend or change that habit. You need to pull the basal ganglia out of the driver's seat and put your prefrontal cortex back in charge. It takes conscious effort to do so.
Your 'WHY,' will be the driving force, the motivation that helps you take action toward the change. By regularly focusing your conscious attention (pre-frontal cortex) to think about your reason for wanting the new habit, you activate the neural networks associated with heightened emotions that anticipate the goal.
Learning the structure of a habit is also essential to change it. Once you understand why you suddenly 'feel like' having a cigarette, you are aware of the cues, and you can take steps to alter, avoid, exchange or even eliminate them.
Instrumental in eliminating bad habits is to change your routine. For example, if you go on vacation, your patterns are interrupted. You may go to bed earlier or later. You might eat at a different time. You might miss your usual workout session. This interruption to your 'routine' happens because you are suddenly away from familiar stimuli. The unusual setting disrupts the cues and triggers that kick your usual habit into action.
It is also important to ask for help when choosing to break a bad habit. Enlisting the help of friends, family members, a Coach or Therapist can make things easier. Your helpers can make it easier for you to stay on track by calling your attention to specific unconscious behaviours and reactions.
Your physical condition also plays a huge role in breaking and developing habits. Sleep is a necessary part of healthy brain function. Have you ever tried comprehending a new concept when you are exhausted? Breaking a habit requires conscious effort and energy. If you aren't sleeping well, staying focused when triggered is more challenging, stretching willpower beyond limits. You don't need to think about automated habits, they just happen. If you want to change them, you need the energy to focus, to consciously repeat the new thoughts, emotions, and actions that wire and fire the neural networks of the new helpful habit.
One crucial thing to remember when breaking bad habits or developing new ones is that mistakes will happen and do not necessarily spell disaster. If you decide that you want to remember to floss every night before bed, it would not be helpful to beat yourself up if you forget one night. In fact, that negative stimuli might make you associate flossing with negativity, negating the "reward" part of habit forming.
Remember one of the ways a habit can form is by activating heightened emotional responses, and your brain does not judge positive or negative emotion as either as right or wrong. So judging yourself for missing one night, could mean you develop the habit of thinking negatively about flossing, resulting in feeling less and less like flossing at all and subconsciously even forgetting to think about it. It would be preferable to acknowledge "a mistake happened and that's okay, I'll remember tomorrow."
Another important aspect of forming good habits is to set reasonable goals in bite-sized stages. If you want to develop a habit of exercising regularly, setting the goal of hitting the gym six times a week if you've never gone to the gym daily before, is setting yourself up for failure at the start. Begin by setting a much more reasonable and achievable goal, like taking a yoga class on Monday and going to the gym on Thursday. Setting reasonable goals in stages won't feel like an overwhelming challenge. After you've managed to get into that habit, you can add onto it from there.
With these strategies in mind, you can take your first steps towards changing bad habits to new, better ones. For further Mind Potential Strategies and Brain Training Audio Programs, go to www.mindpotentialacademy.com or reach out at [email protected]
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