We all suffer from habits that prevent us from being who we want to be. Or so we think. Yet, few of us realize the extent to which our bad habits are perpetuated by our fear-brains. In this brief reflection, I will identify seven brain-based principles that lie behind bad habits and how we can use these principles based in the fear-brain to overcome them.
1. Stress puts the brain in habit-mode: When we think of changing our habits, whether it is stopping smoking or having regrettable sex too often, we literally have to turn off the electric current that flows through these circuits in the brain. If not this, then we have to re-channel the current through another pathway. Extensive research has shown that stress perpetuates bad habits. When we are under stress, there is not enough "brain-energy" to make the re-channeling occur. As a result, the brain goes into "automatic" mode and only the habit brain stay online while the potentially new circuits are turned off. Trying to change a habit while stressed is like trying to put off a fire with gasoline. It is just not going to happen. The first thing to address then, when trying to change a habit, is stress reduction.
2. Geography matters: When we try to change our habits, we often do so while living in the same place, hanging out with the same people and doing the same things. This does not give our brain a chance to truly change. When the brain is asked to make a change, if it senses the same context in which the previous habit was being performed, it resists change. Research has shown us that this is one of the strongest influences on habit circuits. If, for example, you were used to smoking whenever you got home and switched the TV on, every time you saw the TV when you came home, your brain would switch on the habit of smoking. Repositioning the TV and changing the habit of watching TV at that time would significantly help your habit brain to have less power. That is, context matters. So changing a habit while the context is the same is one of the most difficult things to do.
3. When the habit serves a fear: Often, our habits are ways of overcoming fear. Fear creates chaos in the brain, and habits are a way of keeping the brain more steady. Even when the habits are meaningless, they keep the brain feeling less afraid and chaotic. So when you are in habit that you do not like, ask yourself: "What fear am I trying to avoid?" By asking yourself this question, you are going beyond the habit and addressing the fear. When you deal with the fear, the need for the habit will be gone. For example, many people try to avoid their own feeling states. So they smoke, drink or do drugs to create alternate feeling states. By addressing the fear, you have a greater chance of undoing the habit.
4. When the habit is a way of avoiding things you can't change: One of the most frightening things in life is recognizing how little we are in control of many things. So we create habits to counter this. Habits make us feel as though we are in charge of our destinies and even when they are bad habits, the brain feels less afraid of being out of control. Learning what you can and can't control can help you undo bad habits. By learning how to deal with things that you can't control (sometimes referred to as self-acceptance), you can significantly decrease your worry and the need for habits to help you with this worry.
5. When the habit is a way of avoiding the unknown: Subtly different, but every bit as important, habits, when they make us feel in control, can make us feel as though we don't have to be in "discovery" mode. To truly discover things, we have to leanr how to swim in the unknown. Habits are sometimes used as "floaters" to help swim in the unknown. When they are bad habits, these floaters can scratch your arms or even make you drown or avoid the unknown altogether. The brain feels chaotic when things are unknown, and unless you are a novelty-seeker by nature, your brain tends to want to avoid ambiguity. By learning new habits that will help you be in the unknown (accepting mistakes, self-forgiveness, re-interpreting failure as information about what not to do or where not to go), we help the brain feel less chaotic and more oriented to be in discovery mode.
Thus, the basis of bad habits is fear in the brain. When we understand thee habits, we can help ourselves transcend them and be more of ourselves rather than avoid the uncertainty of being.