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The Neuroscience of Habits

Using neuroscience to understand habit loops.

Key points

  • Trying to think a way out of anxiety or a craving doesn’t work.
  • Getting curious with mindfulness can change the relationship with cravings and gives more space to choose actions wisely.
  • Values-rich habits are intrinsically rewarding and self-reinforcing.

Recently I’ve found myself picking up my phone and checking it—way too much. Whether I’m feeling anxious, lonely, or mildly uncomfortable, I check—“There’s something in here that’ll help me feel better!”

I’ve formed an unhelpful habit cycle—one that is interfering with what I care about, like looking my kids in the eyes.

This type of habit loop is known as experiential avoidance. Often, our attempts to avoid the discomfort of living through distracting, numbing out, or controlling our inner experience can derail us from our values.

That’s why I was thrilled to interview Judson Brewer (Dr. Jud), a neuroscientist at Brown University and author of The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smart Phones—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits.

Dr. Jud uses cutting-edge neuroscience to understand what’s happening in the brain when we are in habit cycles and how to use mindfulness and meditation to get unhooked.

In this post, I share some of Dr. Jud’s teachings and some tips from behavioral science and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to help you deconstruct unhelpful habits and reconstruct values-rich habits.

The Neuroscience of Habits

A lot of our habits are unconscious, and we don’t even realize we are doing them. Routines are also complicated to control when we’re stressed. As Dr. Jud described in our interview, “the prefrontal cortex of our brain goes offline” when we’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired (HALT).

Trying to think your way out of anxiety or a craving doesn’t work.

Other key points from Dr. Jud:

  • Everyday habits like overeating or worrying activate the same reward pathways in the brain as drugs of abuse.
  • The orbital frontal cortex of your brain constantly updates the reward values of habits, leading you to choose chocolate over broccoli.
  • Bringing curiosity and mindfulness to your cravings changes your relationship with them and de-activates brain areas involved in craving.

Habit Cycles

Habits aren’t just things we do with our hands and feet. We can also have mental habits like worrying, contemplating, or judging.

Whether you’re grabbing a glass of wine while cooking or re-playing your worst relationship break-up, habits follow a simple pattern: Trigger → Behavior → Results.

Triggers are cues that spark our habits. We have triggered both outside of our skin (e.g., your phone pings a notification) and under our skin (e.g., anxiety, craving, stress).

Behaviors are what we do when the triggers show up. Do you pick up your phone, eat the cookie, snap at your co-worker? Often we don’t even realize we’re in a habit until we’re already doing it.

Results are what happens after you engage in the behavior. Whereas triggers spark your habit, results are what fans the flame to keep it going. Our brain gives more preference to short-term rewards over long-term ones. And our most rewarding habits provide us with pleasure while distracting us from the discomfort of living.

To learn more about habit loops, read Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, or watch how Stanford habit guru BJ Fogg creates lasting change with tiny habits. Dayna-Lee Baggly’s book Healthy Habits Suck is excellent for changing your health behaviors, and DJ Moran has excellent things to say about using the ACT process of committed action to promote change.

Dr. Diana Hill
Using the ACT process of Committed Action to promote change.
Source: Dr. Diana Hill

Get Curious About Your Habits

Being curious with mindfulness can change your relationship with your cravings and give you more space to choose your actions wisely.

Dr. Jud described how curiosity changes our relationship with cravings. Try getting more curious about:

  1. Your habit cycle: The next time you’re making your unhelpful habit, observe it. What triggers your habit? What behaviors are you doing? What happens after you engage in your habit? What are the short and long-term consequences?
  2. Your triggers. Get open and take a more accepting stance toward cravings, sensations, and difficult emotions. Ride your craving like a wave, and allow your thoughts to pass like leaves on a stream
  3. The results. Pay more attention to the negative consequences of your behavior. Change its reward value by bringing awareness to how it’s not helpful to you or its aspects that aren’t truly satisfying.

Build Values-Rich Habits

Once you’ve developed a curious, mindful stance with your unhelpful habit, you can choose a more helpful one—one that is based on your values. Daily values-rich actions build healthier relationships, increases commitment to health behaviors, and improves work performance.

Values-rich habits are intrinsically rewarding and self-reinforcing. The more you do them and focus on the rewarding feelings of acting on your values, the more you will want to continue them!

Build a Values-Rich Habit Cycle: TriggerValues-based ActionResults.

Dr. Diana Hill
Values-rich habit cycle
Source: Dr. Diana Hill

Here’s my old unhelpful habit cycle: Anxious → look at my phone → feel short-term relief but long-term disconnection.

Here’s what I’m committing to do:

My new values-rich habit cycle: Anxious → look at whomever I’m within the eye and breathe → feel more connected short term and long term.

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