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New Year’s Resolutions, so easy to make, but for many, difficult to keep. Despite all of our good intentions every January, many of us struggle to keep these promises for a full month (let alone a full year). The average person makes the same resolution 10 times over without success. So, what’s standing in between so many of us and our elusive goals? Bad habits!
Habits are anything we routinely do without thinking about it. The brain forms neural connections based on repetition. Routine thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and behaviors are hard-wired into our brain’s synaptic automation, where they live to be performed each day effortlessly. This can be great when habits eliminate the need to strategize every single step involved in driving to work, buckling our seat belts when we get in the car, and how and when to brush our teeth. They can also be detrimental when bad habits develop that lead to poor health or performance, such as lighting up a cigarette after meals, scrolling through social media at the first sign of boredom, or reaching for comfort food when stress shows up.
The region of the brain that is responsible for habits receives input from dopamine; the “feel good” chemical that reinforces behaviors. When we engage in the habit of “rewarding” behavior, that feel-good chemical transmits signals between neurons in our brain, giving us a euphoric feeling or reward. When we repeat this habit over time to obtain that reward, it leads to changes in neural pathways, making them stronger and easier to use, and thus, a bad habit is formed.
Despite the challenges of breaking bad habits, research does show that just like negative habits can become “wired” into our brains, the brain can be “rewired” for healthy habits as well. Neuroscientists say the best place to start breaking bad habits is by learning to recognize the trigger for your habit. Do you light up a cigarette when you feel stressed? Do you reach for sweets as soon as dinner is over? Once you recognize your trigger, you can rewire the brain pathways of a habit by consciously replacing the bad habit with a more healthful one. However, to be successful, the new habit should provide the same ultimate reward. For example, if you relieve stress by smoking, the new practice that replaces smoking should also reduce stress. If you buy something from the vending machine to socialize with your co-workers, the new habit should also help fill your social need.
So, what is your trigger? Is it boredom? Stress? Fear? When does your bad habit occur? What need are you ultimately attempting to fill? Answer these questions without judgment, you are exploring your bad habits to understand them better so that you can make healthful changes and still provide your brain with the same reward. We are not doomed by genetics; we can build a strong brain; you can reach your resolutions.