Written By Katie Brooks, LCSW
Based on a workshop held by George F. Koob, PHD
For the purpose of this article I am going to define a habit as a regular involuntary behavior pattern that has been acquired through frequent repetition or exposure. For example, today you woke up and brushed your teeth out of force of habit. You probably did not have to think about it. Or for that matter, you did not brush your teeth this morning because you never do or have fallen out of the habit.
A habit can be good or bad. It can be a thought, behavior, or an emotional response that occurs automatically regardless of the goal and therefore is not goal directed. This is reminiscent of the struggle many of my clients have had when trying to get sober. No matter how strongly they felt inclined towards abstinence somehow they would still frequent the same social scene, drive the same route home from work where they used to stop to use with their friends, or remember the phone number of a friend they used with, even though they had so adamantly erased it. This is an example of a bad habit, which causes benefit or relief in the short-term, but long-term damage.
So how can we prevent and heal from the bad habits and simultaneously cultivate and maintain the good ones? First we must understand how habits are formed. I obtained much of this information from Dr. George F. Koob. My goal of this article is to condense and translate his 8-hour extraordinarily complicated and BRILLIANT lecture, so that my clients and others may directly understand and use this information to benefit their lives. Please understand that if I have made any mistakes that I would feedback. Your feedback only improves my clients' lives.
Habits are learned and maintained by reinforcement circuits. Habits can be reinforced through positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Oftentimes we use rewards and punishments in order to discipline others and ourselves, but it is important to understand the differences between all of these methods.
Reward - Defined as a stimulus that increases the probability of a response, but usually includes a pleasure- seeking quality and is usually tangible. (ex: I give my child candy because she behaved in the supermarket).
Punishment - defined as a process by which presentation of an aversive stimulus decreases the probability of a response. (ex: I spank my child for misbehaving in the supermarket)
Positive Reinforcement - defined as the process by which presentation of a stimulus increases the probability of a response. (ex: I smile and hug my child for behaving in the supermarket).
Negative Reinforcement- defined as a process by which removal of an aversive stimulus increases the probability of a response. (ex: I notice that my child is misbehaving in the supermarket because she is hungry. I find some nuts for her to eat and make sure to bring a snack next time. The aversive stimulus is hunger.)
Many people might get reward and positive reinforcement confused. The best way to remember is that positive reinforcement can include a reward, but a reward is usually tangible, such as the candy in our previous example, or maybe a gift. Disciplining by always using rewards can get costly and also cause other subsequent consequences. For instance, giving your child candy every time she misbehaves can cause poor health and teach her to misbehave every time she wants candy. Many studies indicate that positive reinforcement is best for cultivating long-term positive behavior. Behavior is maintained by reinforcement. Reinforcement is not pleasure and is not always associated with positive effect. Anything that increases the likelihood of repetition and takes one from ok to good (positive reinforcement) or bad to Ok (negative reinforcement) will maintain a behavior if it is repeated enough times. If you want your child to behave in the supermarket give her reinforcing hugs and smiles when she is behaving.
Punishment, on the other hand, has short-term benefits, but oftentimes long term consequences. Spanking will stop the child from screaming in the short-term, but what kind of behavior is it teaching the child? At some point isn’t the child going to wonder why it is ok for her parents to hit her, but not ok for her to hit her classmates? Negative behavior begets negative behavior. Dr. Koob gave a great example of the cat that is squirted in the face with water for peeing on the carpet. I’m sure that the cat will stop peeing on the carpet, but what happens when one comes home later to find a scratched up couch? This is an example of teaching/ modeling that is unknowingly being utilized to develop poor behavior. If you do not want your children to scream in the supermarket screaming and hitting them will not work in the long-term. Later modeling will be discussed as a tool to cultivate positive habits.
Before we talk about ways to develop our life that strategically plants the seeds of pride within. We must understand some basics about the brain. According to Wikipedia, The Basal Ganglia (or basal nuclei) are a group of nuclei in the brain that are responsible for our reward systems and motivation. The way that this works is that Dopamine is released in the Basal Ganglia when we anticipate, experience, or remember a pleasurable thing. For example, if a child knows that he or she is going to Disneyland he or she will experience pleasure. This is due to the dopamine that is released. Research shows that every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain. Dopamine is what motivates you. Basically it is what makes you feel good.
The first challenge in cultivating habits that are life-affirming lies in reframing our evaluation of rewards. Unfortunately in today’s world we are set up to overvalue bad habits and undervalue good habits. For instance, when one anticipates eating birthday cake the anticipation sends dopamine neurons firing. Note that anticipation creates the firing, not just the cake. If you were on a diet and weren’t able to eat the cake naturally this would cause you to feel disappointment or a “buzz kill”. In order to correct this overvaluation of cake it takes intentional re-framing and cognitive restructuring of expectations and environments.
Dopamine Neurons alert the habit system and the Prefrontal Cortex about opportunities. The habit system uses the information to make a quick decision about whether it is worthwhile to perform the habit. The executive system or the prefrontal Cortex is able to consider the information in terms of long-term goals and other factors, but this system tends to be slower. Instead of waiting for our prefrontal cortex to kick in when we are presented with a craving for a reward, it would be beneficial to change the way we think about our habits before we are under pressure. This way we use our slow prefrontal cortex as a way to prevent bad habits from occurring. The way to do this is to challenge the beliefs and expectations about the bad habits by using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques such as reframing, re-assessing what is normal, aligning values and goals, challenging fears and concerns about good habits, creating new associations to encourage good habits, avoiding triggers and removing secondary gain. Phew that was a lot! Well here are some examples to help us these strategies:
BELIEF- Smoking relaxes me and gives me something pleasurable to do
with other people on my break.
ENVIRONMENT- I hang out with other people at work who believe the
the same thing. Everyday I smoke with them after we eat.
HABIT- Dopamine Neurons fire every time you complete your meal.
1) Work on the core belief that “smoking relaxes me and is pleasurable” by investigating, finding consequences, and challenging the thought for accuracy.
ex: I feel relaxed initially when I am smoking, but how do I feel five minutes afterwards when I want another one? How do I feel the rest of the day? Is it really pleasurable? How is it not pleasurable?
2) Re-assess what is normal by investigating actual statistics on smokers within my environment.
ex: It has been said that out of the 45 million people who smoke
worldwide, 70% of the people want to quit. How many of my friends want to
quit? How many of my co-workers are not smoking? Probably more
co-workers do not smoke.
3) Linking the habit to core values and goals.
ex: I want to run in a ½ marathon. Does smoking help me attain the goal of running? Who is my favorite track star? What does he do to attain his goals?
3) Avoid triggers and remove secondary gain. Secondary gain is an indirect benefit of a behavior or illness. For instance, the child gains attention from having a cold. This may increase the likelihood of the child faking illness in the future.
ex: It seems that much of the time the secondary gain for smoking is to avoid tedium or boredom. When lunch is over find a different reward to replace smoking. Try tapping into your healthy interests and do that instead. Read a Runner’s Magazine.
4) Challenging fears and concerns about good habits
ex: Identify what you fear about quitting smoking and or acquiring
other healthy habits. Challenge that fear! Maybe you fear loss of friends. It is better to acquire friends that exhibit behavior that you would like to adopt. The best way to learn is to watch others!
5) Creating new associations to encourage good habits
ex: Running track and eating healthy foods will benefit your body and
will improve your sex life.
Other ways one can influence good habits and limit bad habits are by increasing healthful reward opportunities. These include: enriching your life to tame the need for immediate gratification, enhancing resilience to new threats and Chronic Stressors, avoiding use of willpower alone, and learning by observing and teaching.
ENRICHING YOUR LIFE TO TAME THE NEED FOR IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION
According to Dr. Koob, “Low Dopamine (D2) receptors are associated with high impulsivity and compulsive drug seeking. This may result from impoverished environments and genetic factors. Low Dopamine can lead to development of bad habits.” If you are in a state of deprivation from rewards it is very easy to reach for the quickest fix in order to relieve pain or feel pleasure. Regardless of whether you live in an environment that does not provide rewards or you are purposely depriving yourself, this type of lifestyle can lead to compulsive behavior and poor habits. For example, a client of mine decided she wanted to lose weight and started a diet that was very limiting. Eventually she reached a state of reward deprivation by avoiding food she enjoyed and social situations that provided, not only food, but much needed companionship. Unfortunately, this risky behavior resulted in insomnia. The intense hunger woke her up and the lack of pleasure increased her vulnerability, which resulted in a binge eating session late at night. In part, this was due to Dopamine deprivation, which induced the intense craving for both food and pleasure. The next day she reaffirmed her commitment to an even stricter diet to make up for the binge. Eventually she was awoken again by these same nagging needs and was not able to resist binge eating again. This created a vicious ever-enduring cycle of bingeing that was very painful. Before punishing yourself and limiting rewards focus on keeping your life rich with healthy reward opportunities such as:
1) Social and family functions (huge reward opportunities)
2) Activities that include spirituality
5) Sports and exercise
4) Well prepared healthy foods, plenty of water, and adequate sleep (make sure
your basic needs are met! Sometimes we misconstrue signals from our body when our needs are unmet. (Have you ever gone to the fridge thinking that you were hungry, but really you were only thirsty?)
5) Interesting educational entertainment and hobbies: movies, books, plays,
6) Opportunities of rest and relaxation: massage, vacations, self-care
ENHANCE RESILIENCE TO NEW THREATS AND CHRONIC STRESS
Anxiety will impair your ability to perform and is increased by environmental stress. Anxiety and stress also increase the need for immediate gratification. Stress favors solutions to immediate problems, not long-term goals. Stress uses negative reinforcement primarily to promote bad habits. For example, one of my clients has a very stressful job. On Friday he likes to go to happy hour to relieve some of the job related stress. This relieves his stress temporarily, but when he returns home to his family he is not able to help his wife with the children. This leads to stress in his relationships with his children and wife over the weekend. When he returns to work on Monday, not only is he stressed about his job, but he is also stressed about his family. Without other ways to reduce his stress he returned to the bar for relief. This created a bad habit that did not resolve his problem. Reducing Stress is imperative to limiting bad habits. Ways to achieve this include:
1) Do not over schedule. Pace yourself.
2) Balance your work and rest cycles
3) Limit inefficiency by taking it one step at a time and prioritizing.
4) Improve sleep habits by leaving enough time for sleep and ideally, avoiding caffeine, and pharmaceutical sleep aids (I realize how challenging this is).
5) Increase self-control by pre-planning, problem solving, and assessing what you can control rather than what you cannot.
6) Exercise and Mindfulness techniques such as meditation, yoga, and breathing to calm the sympathetic nervous system.
AVOIDING THE USE OF WILLPOWER ALONE
As defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Willpower is energetic determination.” Energy is a finite resource one has within the body, therefore, it would not be logical to use willpower in order to learn, change or maintain life-long habits. Willpower can be used to stall or hold off a habit, but it requires active focus and the use of your working memory. If you are only trying to avoid a habit in the short-term and you did not have a lot going on that day then this would make sense. Unfortunately, this is not realistic in our busy society. Our working memories are easily overwhelmed by the infinite amount of tasks that we perform each day. Oftentimes we will engage in our bad habits before we even have time to catch it. For instance, if you are actively trying to stop using foul language, eventually it will leak out when you become overwhelmed with other, more pressing, activities. It would be more useful to plan ahead and think of a replacement word, so that when the impulse rises to use the foul word, you can practice.
Let’s try a little experiment. Try not to think of a yellow banana.
Yellow bananas are all over your wall right?! How can we change a habit by thinking about the habit all the time? Our brains don’t work this way. Use a more effective strategy for change.
In the example above my client was trying to use willpower in order to change her eating habits. Instead of avoiding all food that she could not have, it was beneficial to focus on pleasurable healthy food or only eating small amounts of the unhealthy food at scheduled times as a reward for her good behavior. In addition, rather than avoiding social situations she could eat food that was healthy or food that she prepared from home at these social events.
LEARNING BY OBSERVING AND TEACHING
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Often how we learn best by watching others. In order to help us with this process we have something called mirror neurons within the motor cortex of our brains. These neurons save us from having to develop a whole new strategy for learning new behaviors. The easiest and most effective way of learning new habits is to copy behaviors of successful and respected people within our environment. This makes learning faster and reinforces new behaviors by showing you results. Warning this works the opposite way as well. We tend to act, feel, and think like those around us because the social rewards we receive are infused within the environment we choose. For example, if you choose to hang out with smokers you will be socially reinforced in a variety of ways for smoking. I’m pretty sure you are going to feel lonely if everyone retreats outside after dinner to have a cigarette without you. You are going to want to smoke to take away the aversive stimulus (loneliness) in order to feel better. This is an example of negative reinforcement. Here are some tips:
1) Spend time with people who have good habits
2) Practice running through the successful new behaviors in your mind using
visual imagery. Don’t forget to reward yourself within the imagery.
3) Both demonstration and role-play are important. It is nice to learn new tricks from others, but either practice or teach someone else as well. Using all your senses in learning creates better recall later. Especially for parents, if you are trying to teach your children to eat healthy foods and develop healthy coping mechanisms . It is very important to for you eat healthy and have healthy coping methods
Making a new behavior a habit takes work, but it is all about repetition and reward. Practice makes perfect. In order to create a new healthy habit you must practice, practice, practice! Every time you practice a good habit, reward the behavior and be consistent. Even if it is by using mindfulness to notice how the behavior makes you feel afterwards. Soak in those endorphins after you exercise! You will remember the next time you are having second thoughts about exercising. Ask yourself if you will regret the effort afterwards. I bet you won’t! Don’t overwhelm yourself by starting with your biggest baddest habit. Start small. Positive habits seem to have a contagious domino effect. Once making the bed in the morning becomes habitual, you may want to try healthier foods, which may lead to mastering the art of exercise, which increases your ability to stay the full length of the day at work, and so on and so on. Gaining healthy habits will improve your life, but remember you must replace the bad ones. Do not deprive yourself. Good Luck!