The New Science of Successfully Breaking Bad Habits

Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) offers a fresh approach to changing behaviors.

Posted Dec 06, 2017

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The Science of Behavior Change (SOBC) initiative wants to help each of us make healthier behaviors a part of our daily routine. Unhealthy lifestyle habits such as sedentarism, substance abuse, eating too much junk food, and smoking account for approximately 40 percent of premature deaths in the U.S. Of course, we all know that making a resolution to break bad habits—and actually sticking with your commitment—is easier said than done. Luckily, SOBC uses evidence-based findings to help people from all walks of life successfully change behavior. 

SOBC was launched during the Obama administration by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) with the mission of funding and promoting scientific investigation into the personalization and maintenance of successful health-related behavior changes.

Over the years, SOBC scientists have discovered that making long-lasting behavior change requires three key steps: identify, measure, and influence. Their research has also pinpointed three universally important domains regarding behavior changes: (1) self-regulation, (2) stress reactivity and stress resilience, and (3) interpersonal and social processes.

1. Self-Regulation: When it comes to self-regulation, SOBC emphasizes the importance of not "discounting” the value of future rewards (such as feeling good after a workout) as a way to resist a tempting pleasure-seeking behavior in the here and now (such as being a couch potato). Intervention techniques such as "Episodic Future Thinking" help people visualize future outcomes in more detail-specific ways. This leads to better decision making in the present tense.

2. Stress Reactivity and Stress Resilience: The first step for reducing stress reactivity and boosting stress resilience relies on being cognizant of the physiological responses associated with "fight, flight, or freeze" mechanisms in your autonomic nervous system.These include things like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, upset stomach, tunnel vision, shallow breathing, etc. The second step is to calm your nerves by activating the "relaxation response" of your parasympathetic nervous system. For more on this, check out my nine-part series "A Vagus Nerve Survival Guide to Combat Fight-or-Flight Urges."

3. Interpersonal and Social Processes: Regarding this domain, the SOBC team writes: "Emotional responses are one way to determine how you have been affected by interpersonal interactions. Feeling angry, happy, or sad after a social interaction may make you more or less likely to engage in healthy behaviors." SOBC recommends interventions such as cognitive restructuring which help someone learn how to reattribute various causes of negative social behaviors and reduces the degree of interpersonally-fueled anger or dissatisfaction.

In 2015, the SOBC research network put together eight different teams from leading universities across the United States—along with a Resource and Coordinating Center (RCC) at Columbia University Health Sciences—to figure out exactly how and why certain interventions lead to successful behavioral changes and outcomes.

For example, even when a behavioral intervention such as mindfulness-based training effectively improves self-regulation and stress resilience for a practitioner, scientists still don’t understand exactly how and why various aspects of mindfulness work. Therefore, the SOBC research network developed “Mindfulness Influences on Self-Regulation: Mental and Physical Health Implications” along with the Mindfulness Research Collaborative (MRC), which is comprised of 11 mindfulness researchers from five different universities.

MRC is one of the eight teams in the SOBC research network. Their latest research will be published in an upcoming February 2018 special issue of the journal Behaviour Research and Therapy dedicated to "An Experimental Medicine Approach to Behavior Change: The NIH Science of Behavior Change (SOBC)."

Willoughby Britton is an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and first author of a recent SOBC mindfulness-based cognitive therapy study. Another co-author of this paper, Eric Loucks, is an associate professor of epidemiology and director of Brown’s Mindfulness Center. Loucks and Britton are both members of the five-university Mindfulness Research Collaborative and are optimistic that the SOBC approach will lead to more finely-tuned mindfulness-based practices tailored to address each practitioner's specific needs.

"Mindfulness research, in general, could benefit from employing the SOBC experimental medicine approach," Britton said in a statement. "Little is known about how MBIs (mind-body interventions) work or how they should be modified to maximize effectiveness. The SOBC experimental medicine approach will not only help MBIs become maximally effective, but also provide essential mechanistic information that will help tailor the intervention and instructor training to specific populations and conditions."

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Britton, Willoughby B., Jake H. Davis, Eric B. Loucks, Barnes Peterson, Brendan H. Cullen, Laura Reuter, Alora Rando, Hadley Rahrig, Jonah Lipsky, Jared R. Lindahl. "Dismantling Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy: Creation and Validation of 8-week Focused Attention and Open Monitoring Interventions Within a 3-armed Randomized Controlled Trial." Behaviour Research and Therapy (Published online: September 28, 2017) DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2017.09.010

Atance, Cristina M., and Daniela K. O'Neill. "Episodic Future Thinking." Trends in Cognitive Sciences (2001) DOI: 10.1016/S1364-6613(00)01804-0