En español | The human brain is literally wired for habits. Pleasurable ones —drinking alcohol, smoking, eating good food—release the chemical dopamine in the brain, which in turn floods the body with good feelings. And repeated behavior deepens neurological grooves in the brain, making habits insanely difficult to break.
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“Every time we use a habit, we etch it in,” says Omar Manejwala, medical director of the Minnesota addiction treatment programs at Hazelden, the renowned recovery clinic. “Eventually the grooves become so deep that they’re very hard to wipe away.” In fact, he continues, the human brain prefers habitual behavior, because it’s comfortable and familiar.
That's what makes this time of year, when many of us try to break bad habits and develop good ones, so hard. Too often, the brain sabotages our strongest resolutions. Here, doctors who help people overcome addictions —powerful, destructive habits—offer suggestions on how to rewire the brain to kick bad habits for good.
1. Figure out your trigger. There’s a reason you drink too much at parties or sit down with a pint of ice cream every night: It feels good. Whether it’s to ease anxiety (the drinks) or relieve loneliness (the ice cream), “habits are formed when a behavior is linked to an emotion,” says Virgilio Arenas, M.D., a specialist in addiction psychiatry at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago. Try keeping a diary to track exactly what emotion or event triggers a habit, and at what time of day.
2. Find a replacement habit. People don’t really break habits; they just replace them. So, to break a bad habit, find a new, healthy one to replace it. Walk after dinner instead of watching three hours of television. Do a crossword puzzle instead of chewing on fingernails. Eat a banana, not a box of cookies, before bedtime. “Repeating a healthy behavior,” says Manejwala of Hazelden, is the best way to rewire the brain.
3. Look into the future. Don't allow yourself to get discouraged. Recognize that the immediate reward you get from the bad habit can be stronger than the delayed gratification that comes from kicking it. Is it any wonder that your attempts to break a habit can get stymied? “Feeling good now is more powerful than, ‘if I don’t smoke now, in a few months I’ll be able to breathe more easily,’ ” says Joseph Baschnagel, assistant professor of psychology at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, who studies nicotine addiction. Successfully kicking a habit means retraining your mind to think not of instant gratification, but of future benefits.
Give yourself time. Research shows that the more times a smoker tries to quit, the more likely it is that she’ll quit for good. His advice: Keep trying, and don’t think of a backslide as failure. Call it a “slip,” or “lapse,” Baschnagel says. “Don’t see it as failure. If people think they’re failing, they give up.”