The Science of Breaking Bad Habits

Bad habits aren't easy to change. For anyone who’s ever tried to cut back on their drinking or stop smoking, they’ll know the frustration of trying but failing to quit. To begin the process of breaking free from addictive habits, we must first understand how habits are formed.


Every habit has the same structure: a cue or trigger, routine, and reward.


1) Cue or Trigger – The trigger is a reminder that sends us into our normal habit. We often respond to cues entirely unconsciously, without thinking.

2) Routine –The routine is the addiction, which will continue in response to the cue even with diminishing rewards over time.

3) Reward – A reward tells our brain that this loop is worth remembering in the future, through the release of dopamine and other feel-good chemicals.


Over time, the loop of cues, routines, and rewards become more automated. That’s why although we believe our decisions are the result of deliberate thought, many are actually the product of subconscious responses we aren’t aware of influencing our behavior. A large portion of the actions we perform each day aren’t decisions, they're habits.


Changing Habits


To change a habit, we must make a conscious effort to break the automatic cue-routine-reward patterns that have been created. That starts with exploring the real triggers behind your actions. Often, we don’t really understand the cravings driving our behaviors until we look for them. For instance, we may believe that we drink to be social or have fun. But there are often more deeply rooted triggers, such as anxiety or stress. Becoming aware of your own cues is an important first step in breaking a habit. We must first know ourselves.


Many approaches to quit drinking or smoking rely on avoiding triggers all together. Although you need an environment that supports recovery, this strategy only works for so long. The reason is that triggers are often emotional states that occur as a normal part of life – we will all encounter stress and frustration. That’s why to break free of an unhealthy addictive habit, you must change the routine. The cues and rewards will stay the same.












The example above illustrates how this works to quit drinking. When exposed to a trigger, we must replace our normal routine of reaching for a drink with something else, such as reaching out to a friend or support group. Over time, we will instinctively respond to our old triggers with a new set of behaviors. And the more we choose this competing response, the more we’ll allow our brain to form new pathways that reinforce sobriety. Breaking a habit can’t rely on eliminating triggers, it’s about training your brain to respond to those triggers in a different way.


This isn’t easy – recovery from addiction is complex and requires work and daily practice. There are also powerful neurobiological changes that occur in our brain when exposed to an addictive substance like alcohol and tobacco. But by recognizing the mechanisms behind our habits, we gain awareness of how to begin the process of reprogramming our brain around new healthier behaviors.

Source and Image Credit


Duhigg, Charles. (2012). The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business. New York: Random House. Print.

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