“Your brain loves it when you develop habits. Your brain requires a lot of energy, especially when reasoning, so the more activity it can put on autopilot, the more power it has for complicated work. To keep you from having to think about your behaviors you repeat often – how to commute to work, take a shower…”
How do our brain habits work? Simply stated, there are rewards for cues. These rewards are given through a series of chemicals that activate the pleasure and motivation circuits in the brain.
- Clock clicks 7:30 am (cue)
- You leave your home for work (habit)
- You arrive at work on time (reward)
- You see a chocolate cupcake (cue)
- You eat a chocolate cupcake (habit)
- Your pleasure centers are happy (reward)
Our reward circuits were developed to assist our seeking food and water and encouraging reproduction are located in our mid-brain. The reward motivates us to continue the habit that created the reward whenever the cue is present again in the future. So how does this apply to when you want to approve a behavior or cancel out a habit induced because of stress or anxiety.
Stress and anxiety used to be useful. They motivated us to stay aware from bears, cougars, and wolves. However, stress and anxiety from loss or grief shifts the balance of our attention toward the stress and anxiety instead of toward the loss or grief event. Our motivation becomes about resolving the tension rather than resolving the root problem.
- Two groups were put in rooms and told to solve an unsolvable math problem.
- One group was told to eat the plate of cookies provided.
- The second group was told not the eat the plate of cookies provided.
- Result: The group who were told to eat the cookies worked on the problem twice as long as the group who were told not to eat the cookies. It was determined the other group gave up sooner because of will power depletion based on keeping their brain chemicals (PFCs) busy exerting self-control so they would not eating the cookies.
This example was used as a metaphor to explain why we make bad choices at the end of a day of making other choices and exerting self-control on work, family, or personal issues. To resolve this issue, think about what decisions can be made into habits to allow the brain to be free to handle more complex areas. Do you want to increase your work out or writing or meditating but seem to never have the time between all your scheduled appointments and errands? Set your alarm clock 30 minutes or 1 hour before your standard time of getting up and use that time only for that one special project. After a few days, a habit will be formed and your brain will be freed from the stress and anxiety of trying to fit the project into your schedule. Do you want to eat better but find yourself exhausted after a day of work, and care tending children and/or parents and just grab some take out on the way home. Carve out some time each weekend to create a variety of healthy food choices that coordinate well with each other. Then mix and match them for interesting meals each day.
What cues do you want to adjust? Will you try this?
CITE: Alexander, B. (2013, June). Change One Small Habit, Change Your Life. New York. More Publications.