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But what in fact happens in our brain?
In the process of learning something new, habits are formed.
This process involves part of the brain that controls and triggers emotions and movements, memories and pattern recognitions – the basal ganglia. The process of making a decision happens however in another part of the brain – the prefrontal cortex. When a new behaviour becomes automatic the part of our brain that is in charge of the decision process goes somewhat into a sleep mode. We then start doing things without thinking about them.
The process of forming a habit has three steps – a trigger (a cue), a routine and a reward. Trigger is a step for a habit to start, the routine is the behavior, and the reward is in fact a state in which a brain learns to turn a certain action into an automatic behavior.
So, there is a trigger that signals to our brain that we need to do something in particular that our brain has already turned into an automatic routine – a signal in our brain that prompts a person to reach to a cigarette every morning, for instance.
The important and most complex part of habit formation is the reward as it is sometimes unclear what reward is driving the behavior. We are not talking about a satisfying experience, or the experience that is literally positive though, but also an experience that is or can be painful.
A good example is nail biting. If we suppose that a cue for nail biting is boredom, what is the reward? it appears that the reward is that unnoticeable pain a person experiences while biting the nails. How is that possible? The boredom and the pain occur in the same part of the brain. As the pain overwhelms the tension of boredom, our brain starts to prefer pain over boredom. We wanted to escape a certain state, and our exit strategy is a compensation. If we do this over and over again, we form a habit.
What happens next?
According to the scientists the brain takes a break allowing us to direct our focus to other activities. In other words, the mind can now devote to some other mental activity. This is how we learn new behaviors. However, it also means that somewhat around 40 percent of the time we are not thinking about the things we are doing.
So there’s a question: how can you change a pattern of behavior if you are not even aware of it?
Studies have shown that when people are in the same environment they will perform automated behavior. Hence, it is not a surprise that we perceive vacations as highly desirable activities. With changing the environment, our brain can break certain habits, and we can feel relieved or satisfied. It all comes to this: when the cues changes, patterns are broken.
But habits persist even after our motivation or interest are reduced.
Although habits are developed consciously or subconsciously, our brain is trainable. And before you start thinking about introducing new healthy eating behavior, or getting rid of the unhealthy habits, you need to know the following:
The brain doesn’t differentiate good and bad habits
You need to be less strict with yourself. Most of our days we go through good activities and habits. If we don’t have routines we would have to think about everything we do all the time and our mind will not be free to learn new things. As we have good habits we also have bad ones, and what you need to remember is that we ALL have them and we all need to put much effort to break them.
Bad habits also have a function
There’s a cause and function behind every habit, good or bad. We put the seatbelt on to protect ourselves. We wash our teeth to maintain healthy hygiene and prevent visits to dentist. You might eat only to comfort yourself. Or, you are smoking to be able to pause and think. Everything we do, we do it for a reason, even when we are not conscious about it. To break a bad habit you must know the function behind it.
Recognize the real problem
What is the reason you are eating so much snacks? Is it boredom? Or is it emotional eating? Are you compensating certain emotions with food? There is one thing you can learn from your habits – think more about the problems that you need to deal with. There is no use if you sweep your problems under the carpet. It might be painful, but the final outcome is going to bring you satisfaction and your self-confidence will only be stronger.
Give yourself time to deal with bad habits
It is normal to sometimes feel guilty for having a bad habit, but you are not going to make any changes or improvements if all you do is putting yourself down. For a bad habit to break you need more time and energy, so don’t get discouraged. Some need about three months to develop a new habit and substitute that new behavior for the bad one. Some people will need more. Given our brain understands both good and bad routines as automatic, it can be difficult to get rid of them, but don’t give up.