Habits and addictions
Habits and addictions are basically synonymous. That makes sense since both behaviors are set up by the same mechanism in our brain. Since our brain’s primary focus includes learning new concepts, solving problems and calculating strategies to protect us from danger, the brain structures repetitive actions to save energy. This places our actions, and even our thoughts, on a sort of “auto pilot” mode. This is how habits – both good ones and bad ones – are formed. Why is it though, that habits are so difficult to let go?
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that all of our thoughts are organized and structured inside neurons. These neurons create a network of information that makes any information stored instantly accessible for future use. In a very real sense our lives are saved and recorded – these thoughts generate instant actions and are saved in our mind. At the same time it’s important to remember that every single thought, word and action has an effect on the human body due to the interconnectivity that takes place inside of it. Each also leaves its mark – marks which are manifested in our health. The best example I can give is to compare your mind to the internet. As we search the internet, traces of what we search, the pages you visit, and how long you are on them are recorded. The internet then uses this information to create a cyber profile. Companies that are eager to sell products will then target your cyber profile if you fit what they are trying to sell. In other words, you will continue to be fed what you are searching for.
As high powered as technology is, our brains are much more complex and powerful than the internet. Details of everything that engages our senses will be recorded – colors, music, temperature, etc. Additionally, in order for a habit or addiction to form, the brain also requires a “reward.” These rewards are calculated by the brain utilizing the existing network of previous memories and knowledge, experiences, etc. All of this information is then translated into emotions such as fear or happiness. Once this happens a few times, the brain uses chemical reactions to accelerate the “reward” factor to reinforce the habit or addiction. A great example of how this works is smoking cigarettes. Cigarettes initially leave an awful taste in your mouth that is often coupled with a bad physical sensation when you smoke for the first time. The same happens with other unhealthy actions, such as overeating, and even thoughts, such as staying angry at someone.
But if these actions or thoughts are initially rejected by our body how can they possibly become habits? The answer is because other variables are also involved. There are a number of other pieces of information that the brain uses such as values, doubt, pride, resentment, fear, and others that the brain presents to us when we are in a position to make a choice. When this happens, regardless of how unpleasant it is to smoke a cigarette, our longing for acceptance may be enough of a reward for us to continue smoking if it allows us to fit in certain social circles. All of these factors end up increasing dopamine in the brain to over ride a bad experience and create a reward for a particular habit. This also helps explain why we turn to our vices or bad habits whenever we feel stress – because of the reward factor that we have rewired our brains to.
Although bad habits and addictions recreate the landscape of our mind and reality, the good news is that same landscape can me modified and restored to a healthy state. In order to do so we have to remember how the brain reorganizes and prioritizes changes as outlined a bit earlier. These same processes are used to build good habits. Always keep in the front of your mind that bad habits and addictions are nothing more than a fake replacement for true confidence. Judging others wrongly, overeating, drinking, smoking and other negative indulgences are harmful. Regardless, we have the ability to rewire the way we think through putting ourselves in situations where we can feel true emotions and feelings of belonging and appreciation. These kinds of situations will begin to create a new sense of reward built on good actions, thoughts and habits which lead to a more healthy and satisfying life.