This Is How You Break a Bad Habit, According to an Addiction Expert
We start out each year with the best of intentions—to eat better, quit smoking, exercise more, or drink less—but for some reason, many of us eventually give in to temptation, and our focus wanes. The simple truth is that being disciplined takes effort, and that can be challenging when we’re all so easily distracted all the time. But that’s not entirely our fault. In fact, at his recent TEDMed talk, psychiatrist Dr. Judson Brewer, founder of Claritas MindSciences and creator of Craving to Quit, said studies show that “even when we’re trying to pay attention to something at some point, about half of us will drift off into a daydream, or have this urge to check our Twitter feed.” It’s sad but true. So why is it so hard for us to pay attention? And what does this have to do with breaking bad habits? Well, a lot actually. Scroll down to find out why we form addictive behaviours and Dr. Brewer’s simple solution for breaking them.
If you feel like you’re in a constant battle with your bad habits, you’re not far from the reality. Turns out, you are actually fighting a basic human process, or what Dr. Brewer calls a “reward-based learning process called positive and negative reinforcement.” It’s also one of the most basic nervous systems known to man. So what does this process look like exactly? Well it’s as simple as this: We “see food, eat food, feel good, repeat.” It’s our natural instinct to equate calories with survival, and when those said calories taste good, i.e. chocolate, then our bodies send that feel-good signal to the brain with the message to "remember what you're eating and where you found it." From this, we form what Dr. Brewer refers to as context-dependent memory, and we learn to repeat the process next time.
Now this is where our brains get really creative and crafty. After we’ve stored the “context-dependent memory,” our brain associates that emotion with food. So next time you’re feeling mad or sad, it remembers that if we eat chocolate or ice cream, we feel better; it’s a simple process of “trigger, behavior, reward.” These emotional triggers are responsible for forming many of our bad habits, and they usually stick. “Instead of this hunger signal coming from our stomach, this emotional signal, feeling sad, triggers that urge to eat,” adds Dr. Brewer. So how do you identify what your triggers are or where they come from? Well, it starts during a moment of vulnerability or emotional turmoil. Can you trace back that first moment you picked up a cigarette and started smoking? If you started as a teenager, there’s every chance you picked it up because you thought it was cool, right? You saw the rebel kids hanging out, and you wanted to be cool, too, so you started smoking. Brewer says, “See cool, smoke to be cool, feel good. Repeat: trigger, behavior, reward. And each time we do this, we learn to repeat the process and it becomes a habit. So later, feeling stressed out triggers that urge to smoke a cigarette or to eat something sweet.” But it’s not our fault, really, is it? While these simple survival mechanisms probably helped us in the beginning, now these habits are literally killing us. “Obesity and smoking are among the leading preventable causes of morbidity and mortality in the world,” adds Brewer.
The more we add pressure, the more likely we are to crack under it. Forcing yourself to break a bad habit is never going to work. So instead of using force, try swapping it for curiosity instead. Dr. Brewer says we should stop fighting our brains, or trying to force ourselves to pay attention, and instead get “really curious” about what is happening in our “momentary experience.” So why does curiosity matter? It allows us to think about each moment of the craving process, you put on your scientific cap and start to notice the patterns and try to make sense, or understand why you’re feeling them. These bite-sized experiences are manageable, too, rather than taking on the huge task of breaking the bad habit all at once. So how does curiosity help? “When we get curious, we step out of our old fear-based, reactive habit patterns, and we step into being,” says Dr. Brewer. And this is where mindfulness training comes in.
So you’ve gotten a little curious about your cravings and are seeing your bad habits as bite-sized, manageable morsels rather than one big chunk you can easily choke on; now it’s time to get mindful. So what is this all about? According to Dr. Brewer, “mindfulness is just about being really interested in getting close and personal with what’s actually happening in our bodies and minds from moment to moment.” So instead of trying to make your cravings or bad habits go away as quickly as possible, you turn toward them with curiosity and this is “naturally rewarding.” Sounds too simple to be true? According to one of Dr. Brewer’s studies, “mindfulness training was twice as good as gold standard therapy at helping people quit smoking, so it actually works.” So the next time you feel the urge to stress-eat, smoke, or text while driving, try being “curiously aware” of what’s happening in that moment and consider why you have that compulsion. Because as Dr. Brewer says, “it will just be another chance to perpetuate one of our endless and exhaustive habit loops, or step out of it.” While he also admits that this mindful approach isn’t just a “poof, magically we quit smoking” guarantee, eventually, “as we learn to see more and more clearly the results of our actions, we let go of old habits and form new ones.”
To watch Judson Brewer’s TEDMed talk, visit TED.
Have you ever broken a bad habit? How did you do it? Would you consider using this mindfulness approach? Share it in the comments below.