FORT LEE, Va. (April 18, 2013) -- We’ve all recognized that we have habits that need changing from time to time. And we’ve all had the experience of finding out how hard it is to break a habit even when we really want to.
I attended a seminar a few weeks ago on how difficult it is to simply use willpower to change habits. According to the presenter, habits are fast, efficient, unconscious and automatic. In contrast, the self-regulatory (willpower) function of our brain is conscious, effortful and slow. Behaviors – whether in our best interest or not – are reinforced by chemicals in the brain; specifically dopamine.
Dopamine release occurs when a reward is sensed. This chemical release cues our minds to want to repeat whatever action we just performed.
This is how habits are formed. Willpower understands the difference between short-term and long-term benefits or harm. Habits are more focused on short-term benefits regardless of the harm that repetition may bring. Stress-driven habits can be especially harmful and difficult to break – difficult, but not impossible.
When you are faced with a stressor, stop and think about the level of control you believe you have in the particular situation. It is no surprise that people who believe they are more in control of their situations tend to exhibit less maladaptive functioning during times of stress.
This is where cognitive behavioral therapy can help a great deal. Cognitive behavioral therapy teaches a person how to change his or her perspective on life by reframing situations and reducing the cognitive distortions we all so frequently engage in when stressed.
Developing a values or goals assessment can also help reprioritize behaviors from destructive to productive. Good questions to ask yourself include, “What do I want for my life now as well as in the long run? Does my lifestyle or actions coincide with the values I consider important?”
Creating positive associations with the habits you wish to form can help reinforce healthy behavior. If you wish to develop a new habit, why reinvent the wheel? Observe and study how others have developed the habit you want to form and then replicate the behavior. Seek out and spend time with a quality mentor.
Role-play new behaviors with a mentor, family member or friend in a neutral environment. Repetition is key to developing new habits. Rewarding yourself when goals are reached is also key. Social support (aside from a role model or mentor) helps solidify new habits.
Surround yourself with those who share the habits you wish to engage in or maintain.
These are just some of the ways new habits can be formed. It may be an uphill battle, but with work we can get to the top of the hill and see the valley on the other side.
Julie A. Niven, Embedded Behavioral Health Provider, KAHC