Changing Habits


Right now, you are probably inundated with advertising and reminders that it is almost the NEW YEAR and the time for the NEW YOU. To give you an upper hand on your resolution, I would like to give you some free tips and brain hacks on breaking habits and making lasting changes in your life.  This is a great time to take on some big changes in your life.  What are you committing to in 2018?  How will you go about changing your behaviors and patterns to accomplish your resolutions?  I recently attended a neuroscience seminar on just this very subject and would like to share with you proven ways of changing habits.

How does the human mind break unhealthy patterns and instill lasting healthy habits? The brain processes behaviors from two different areas in the brain: Bottom Up (an external cue influences an action) and Top Down (an internal thought that influences actions).  Most Bottom Up Processes in the brain are illicit habits. When I see a red light, I stop.  In contrast, most Top Down Processes help regulate unwanted behaviors. When I see an up-for-grabs cupcake, I am choose to walk past it.  So, when we are trying to make a new behavior stick, we have to look at both Top Down Processing and Bottom Up Processing in order to make it a habitual pattern. 

The mind’s reward system is quite fascinating.  There was an experiment where each time a rat hit a button, the reward system in his brain was triggered by electrical stimulation.  What they found was the rat gave up food, a fertile female rat, and water as long as he had the quick fix button to short circuit his reward system. And it is with the help of this reward system where we create habits, both good and bad.

How do we initiate the reward system while kicking bad habits?


Sure we all know the amazing health benefits of exercise including an increase in good feelers in the body but did you know that regular exercise increases the top down processing of the brain that helps you override urges and instant gratification? If you don’t currently exercise, try incorporating just 20 minutes three times a week as simple as walking around the block on a break at work.  



I can’t overemphasize the magic that happens while you sleep.  You are finally offline and your body is able to reboot and update your software.  In regards to habit changing, consistent deep sleeps helps increase top down processing of the brain which makes it easier for you to control your actions. Challenge yourself to getting to bed around 9pm for a week and see how this affects your ability to make healthy choices the following day. Having sleep issues? Try getting your body and mind ready for sleep by dimming the lights in your house, staying away from screens within two hours of sleep, putting your legs on a wall and your back on the ground for ten minutes right before bed, decreasing alcohol and caffeine intake, not eating past 8:00pm, or cooling yourself down with a shower or bath.



Stress elicits us to make decisions based on immediate reward and not long term goals.  I see this all too often in my practice.  Stress is the catalyst to unhealthy patterns and habits. Become cognoscente and aware of your stress patterns and how they affect your unhealthy habits. Take up deep breathing, meditation, mindfulness, or other practices that help you brain view and deal with stress differently. 



Start to train your brain to think differently of cues of behaviors you are trying to change (i.e the up-for-grabs cupcake is my cue and my behavior is to grab it).  There was a study that showed a diminished dopamine (pleasure neurotransmitter) reward response when given other information about the food item (i.e. when fast food items had ingredient and total calorie count next to them). Try reframing your initial thought when you see a cue that initiates a behavior you are trying to change (i.e. seeing your favorite ice cream shop on your way home from work which elicits the thought, “I’ve had a hard day, I deserve a scoop,” and replace it with a thought that aligns with your longterm goals).  Some phrases that can help you reframe:

How will I feel about eating this tomorrow? Next year? 10 years?

Is this a reward or punishment?

What would I tell a friend in this situation?

It’s not as good as I think it will be.

The reward is only temporary

This craving will pass.

If I resist, it is in line with my goals.

This is hard but worth it.

This feeling of urge is normal.



It is essential that your reward system is still engaged in order to make lasting habits. Incorporate healthy rewards to replace unhealthy ones.  However, it isn’t always initially successful if you replace an unhealthy food item with a healthy food item because your system says, “Yea no, that didn’t do it for me,” and will not reach the itch of your reward system.  In these initial stages of denying unhealthy food options, reward yourself with something else you look forward to like buying tickets to that show you wanted to see, calling a friend you miss, reflect on all the wonderful things you have in your life, picking up your next new book, etc. It is beneficial to know that the reward system does not always indicate pleasure but is actually based on anticipating and receiving a benefit (either immediate or long term).  Avoid immediate and quick repeated rewards as it will sensitize your reward system and have less activation over time.



Your reward system transfers information to the earliest reliable predictor of the reward, or the cue (remember the bell in Pavlov’s dogs?). Look for the cues in your life that make you engage in unhealthy habits (going into a certain restaurant, watching tv ads, seeing the package of your favorite cookies, high amounts of stress, etc.). It is imperative that you bring unconscious habits into awareness so you don’t go into autopilot and one of the first steps is identifying what is cueing up or triggering your response.  Once you have uncovered and established these cues, try to avoid interacting with them (driving a new route to work, managing stress, avoiding commercials and marketing, etc.). Also, there is support that changing many habits at once can change other negative behaviors because it simultaneously shifts your cues. 



Ask yourself some questions before engaging in unhealthy patterns you are trying to change. Before going for the behavior, figure out what you are craving and you may be able to hold on to it!  If you are wanting a chocolate cupcake, perhaps it is the chocolate that you are wanting.  If that’s the main reason you are going for it, then choose a few chunks of a healthy dark chocolate. Additionally, the acronym HALT can help you delay making an autopilot choice.  Ask yourself, “Am I hungry? Am I angry/stressed? Am I lonely? Am I tired?” Answering these questions can help you determine why you are making the decision; this can help curve rash behaviors.


It is my hope that these tips have given you a head start to accomplishing your goals.  If your goal is health and wellness, please visit my website for more information to see how I may become a part of your journey through nutritional therapy.


For levity’s sake, check out these kids being challenged to override their instant reward system:


Summer MaidComment