it’s all in your mind: building healthy habits

It’s smart to be flexible - that’s why your brain has the ability to constantly adapt and change, well into adulthood. We used to think that the human mind became “fixed” at a certain age, but recent research suggests that the brain retains the ability to change our entire lives. The brain’s capacity for change is called neuroplasticity and it’s the reason why humans are so prone to adopting new habits in the face of new environments or routines. 

For instance, because of the disruptions in daily life caused by Covid-19, some people developed the new habit of cooking at home. Others developed the habit of increased alcohol consumption. 

And with the emergence of a new calendar year, many of us are resolving to incorporate new healthy habits into our own routines. Which often proves difficult! But by looking at the science behind habit formation, we can understand how to best train our brains to stick to our goals.

According to researchers at MIT, the neurons in the human brain are naturally circuited to seek the most efficient way to balance the “cost” and “reward” of an action, leading to the development of habits. These habits are often triggered automatically and by something specific - a commercial break when you watch TV might trigger you to look at your phone. A stressful day at work might result in craving a drink when you get home. 

These processes are a part of the “habit loop”, a cycle of stimulus described by psychologist  Charles Duhigg. According to Duhigg, the habit loop is a four stage pattern that all habits - good or bad - cycle through in sequential order. 

The first stage in the loop is the trigger, or cue.  This cue is when the brain processes a sensory stimulus - this could be an odor, a temperature, or an emotional state. 

Next comes the craving. The stimulus sparks desire, causing you to act in a way that results in a reward behavior. 

The response is the actual action you take to obtain the reward, the outcome that satisfies your craving. The pleasure or relief you experience from the reward reinforces the power of the cue, which makes the cue even better at triggering a response the next time it occurs. 

You can take advantage of understanding this cycle by manipulating rewards to reinforce good habits. For instance, if you only watch your favorite show on the treadmill or listen to a beloved audiobook while you jog, you directly link the reward of entertainment with the stimulus of exercise. 

Of course, good habits can’t be made overnight. Researchers discovered that a new habit takes an average of 66 days to become truly automatic. Some habits are easier to form than others. But if you’re looking to include new habits into your lifestyle, consider a simple swap of a bad habit for a better one. Instead of cracking a beer at night, replace it with seltzer water. Another good way to stay on track for better habits is to vocalize your goal. Positive affirmations have a woowoo reputation, but MRI scans show that the brain totally lights up when affirmations are spoken - proving that they help form good habits! When seeking new habits stay positive, persistent, and be sure to cut yourself some slack. Creating healthy habits may not be a walk in the park, but keeping the science in mind helps make new habits ever achievable.