Habits and Habituation – Risks and Benefits

Habits and Habituation – Risks and Benefits post page

By Teepa SnowDecember 18th, 2020

Habits and Habituation – Risks and Benefits

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by Teepa Snow, MS, OTR/L, FAOTA

Habits, we all have them. Good or bad, we all have them. It’s easier to focus on the bad habits, though, isn’t it? If I could just stop _______, I would be so much better off. If I could do _______ less, I would be happier. Have you ever stopped to think about the other habits in your life that are actually beneficial?

What is a habit?

  • It’s something we do without thinking.
  • It accounts for about 45% of what most of us do each day.
  • It reduces the need for fuel, it’s an energy conservation strategy used by your brain and body.
  • It’s something that allows us to do the routine, while we focus on some other thought, activity, or issue.
  • It’s something that your brain has established an automatic pathway to complete.
  • It actually has a chemical way of keeping your cortical brain tuned out, unless there is an emergency override.
  • It’s based on cues that you receive from the environment in some way.
  • It can be either a good or a bad automated routine, and once established it is very difficult to change, unless something triggers the change.

A habit is an automatic sequence of actions, or patterns of behavior that happen every time a cue is noted and a sense of like, want, or need arises. A desire to have something change or happen. A habit does not start out that way. It has to be learned and built into the wiring and functions of the brain and body. At first, we have to actively attend and focus. We have to think about what we want to do, plan it out, and execute it step by step. It takes a great deal of energy to accomplish. It requires focused attention, active intention, development of skill, selection from options, repetition of the rehearsed action sequence, practice of transitions as each element is wired in, and sustained focus until the desired outcome is achieved. After it has been repeated a number of times, your brain hard wires the pathways in and the more basic and core part of your brain begins to take over and actually block out messages to the pre-frontal thinking part of your brain. That allows the thinking area of your brain to be otherwise engaged while you do what you usually do, thus it becomes a habit. It allows you to complete something that is different, more complex, something unique while at the same time you continue to do that which you have mastered or habituated into your pattern of living. Every time you encounter a cue to start the sequence it happens, without active awareness. Our days are filled with habitual patterns of behavior. We are subliminally cued to do what we always do. In the meantime, we are frequently engaging our cortical brain in dealing with that which is less predictable and must be responded to in the moment, due to that lack of predictability.

So, it turns out that habits are not all good or all bad! They serve a vital function in conserving resources and allowing us to focus on other more interesting or life supporting activities or interests. Many of them help us build new skills into our neural network and keep us going even when we are not attentive or alert.

It turns out that there is a sequence to developing a habit. There is a cue, that causes a response or action, then there is a reward or something that happens as a result of that action. The reward is identified by chemical changes in the brain and body. It is registered as something positive, something good that happens for your brain or body. It provides an immediate uptick or click in the more primitive part of the brain, a reward. Your primitive brain sends an immediate message back into the system saying, let’s do it again! If the same reward occurs, the brain will keep repeating this pattern.

After you do this for a period of time, another step is inserted into the sequence. You get a cue, then you immediately develop a craving for the reward, so you quickly take the action that gives you that result. The new piece is the craving. It is a chemically induced shift that actually happens as soon as your brain spots the cue! So, it reinforces and in fact helps to force the action into being.

Now let’s deal with the habits that are not serving us well.  How do we change a habit that is not helping us? How do we get rid of cravings that cause us to do something we say and think we do not want to do any longer? How can we get ourselves to stop the automatic pattern that we have going, when our brain short circuits our efforts to be in control? There are several possibilities.

It turns out there are some habits that extinguish themselves because the reward or result is no longer giving the brain enough bang for the buck. For example, when I finish drinking a glass of water, I am satisfied. Drinking more won’t give me any more satisfaction. I’m okay without more, so I am not getting an internal cue of thirst. I stop drinking, unless or until I notice that internal cue.

Another reason a habit will stop repeating is if there is something that cues the brain into another habit loop. There is a subsequent cue that leads from one pattern to the next. We call this a transition point. Going back to our earlier example of the glass of water, the empty glass could cue me to place it next to the sink for washing, or I notice the fork lying on the table and set the glass down to move on to a new habitual pattern, eating.

A third option requires active work on our part. We have to make a decision and then explore the habit with real curiosity combined with empathy for ourselves. The blame game doesn’t actually help in this process. Acknowledging there is a habit, a primitive brain-controlled sequence, is a major step forward to changing that pattern. Exploration of the steps of the feedback loop is essential. To offer your brain an alternative, you will want to get an active handle on what is happening now. It will be a process. It will take some time, energy, focus, and synaptic development and use.

It turns out that we actually will want to change the feedback loop we have going. To do that, James Clear, a well-known author and inspirational speaker on habit formation and change, has some very practical, straight forward, and simple techniques to support the work you and your brain will have to do! He, and others, indicate there is a division in the four steps of habit formation and function. The first two elements, the cue that your brain notices and the subsequent craving that is generated is considered the problem side of the equation. The action that is taken and the resulting satisfaction is the solution side of the equation. If we want to change the equation, we only need to change one element to change the feedback loop.

To change something on the problem side of the loop:

  1. What is the cue that is starting the loop? What does your brain notice? What is it seeking to change? What is that trigger?
  2. What is the craving? What outcome will make me feel better? What is the motivation, the desire?

To change something on the solution side of the loop:

  1. What action is taken? Is it a single item or a sequence of actions? Are the actions physical, visual, or verbal? What body parts are involved? What is the sequence? Is it quick or slow? Is it hard or easy? Is it intense or almost un-noticeable?
  2. What is the reward? What is the outcome or the sensation that happens when you complete the action? What is the feeling or thought that occurs when you finish? What is that change that just occurred?

An example of what I would consider a bad habit, for me, might be the following:

After the meal, I am standing in the dessert line at a potluck gathering. I pick up a plate and transfer it to my non-dominant hand as I visually explore all the dessert offerings.

  1. Cue: My eyes go from one offering to another. I recognize all of them from past events. I love the flavor, texture, and aroma of all eight of them. This is the only type of event when I am around them. (Cue is visual)
  2. Craving: I want to experience the pleasurable sensations on my tongue, in my mouth, and in my nose. I want to experience the variety and special aspect of each of them. (Craving is pleasurable textural, olfactory, and gustatory sensations)
  3. Action: I use the serving utensil from each item to place a half portion on my plate, until I get all eight.
  4. Reward: I eat each of the offerings and find that each offers a unique combination of pleasurable texture, smell, and taste sensations that I find exciting and positive. I also have a blood sugar elevation, that is not really all that healthy or helpful to me, but that is not what I notice, nor does it cause a sense of being either satisfied or dissatisfied.

Historically, we have tried to get ourselves to stop doing the action without changing either the cue or the craving. I decide to make myself only take one item. Unfortunately, it was the variety of sensory combinations I craved, not just one. A typical result is that I feel deprived. I find myself needing to go back for just one other option. Before too long, I may well have repeated that just one more option, seven times. If not at this gathering then at another. The difficulty is that I didn’t actually find a way to change either the problem or find a solution that was effective. The old habit pathways force the thinking brain to give up, and go back to what is familiar and comfortable. We don’t build a new pattern.

James Clear and others have suggested that what we would need to do is add a new element, after we appreciate what is actually happening and why we are doing it.

  1. To alter the cue: Select something that is strong and very obvious. Something that would precede the other cue. Something that provides an interjection, a slight interruption of the old pattern.
  2. To modify the craving: Make sure what is being considered is positive and satisfying. It may hit the same sensory notes, or may provide something good in another sensory system.
  3. To change the action: make sure what you are going to do is simple, easy, and uses some of the same action systems that you used for the other action sequence.
  4. To change the reward: Figure out what is satisfying about the action completion. Match up what you are experiencing with a sense that you enjoyed or got something useful and helpful from the cycle.

In my example, I might decide to try out the following change.

I pick up a plastic teaspoon and place it in my dominant hand as I switch my plate to the non-dominant hand. The spoon is the cue of the size of portion I am going to take from each offering. I keep it in my dominant hand.

By adding the spoon to my serving hand, I have created a new neural circuit. My craving recognizes that with this cue that I am going to get a sample of each of the offerings. Since that is what my primitive brain was actually craving, I can continue with the slightly modified action plan. I take a teaspoonful of each item. I then enjoy the flavor, texture, and aromatic combinations that I love. Since that was really why I did what I did, this new pattern will be more easily integrated, as long as I provide myself with the cue of the teaspoon prior to approaching the table.

My feelings of successfully reducing my glucose intake and avoiding the holiday weight gain from my previous habit, is satisfying and thus the new habit is fostered. I may want to rehearse this habit at other times, at other meals. If I can get it to be a part of my routine, I won’t even have to think about getting the teaspoon before I get in line. It will be part of my new habit structure.

So how does this practice of habit change à brain change apply to the world of dementia? For people living with dementia, the ability to continue to use as many helpful old habits as possible can be incredibly effective in keeping life moving forward. The tricky part comes when what used to work doesn’t and results are not satisfying or safely achieved. Or perhaps it is when an old bad habit was limited in frequency or intensity by controlling exposure to cues that started the whole loop.

For those of us in a supportive mode, we will want to carefully consider the ways in which we can provide the cue variation with the person’s collaboration, or ways in which an alternate, equally valued, reward is the result, if habits are to change. Appreciating the craving, the need, that is being addressed is so vital in coming up with a new neural pathway that turns in to a new habit pattern.

All too often, caregivers and care providers are trying to break old habits, coax someone into a new behavior, and manage what is seen as a challenging behavior. Perhaps instead, we might better spend our time learning about the person, what is happening for their senses, body, and brain, and what is still working within their cortical and primitive brain, as well as what seems to have changed. Then explore the physical, sensory, human, and programming environment for cues that might be starting the craving. Observing carefully, exploring more thoroughly, and appreciating more fully from each person’s perspective and previous life experiences and patterns may be incredibly helpful. Creating new opportunities for satisfaction rather than seeking to punish or stop what is coming from the primitive brain, may well serve us all better.

We will all need to create new habits and leave old ones behind, if we are going to be in the world with one another as things change.

Consider your first possibility. What will you try?

Resources I found helpful in writing this article:

Want to learn more about how habits change your brain? Click here for a video from the It’s Ok to Be Smart YouTube channel.

Want to know how we form habits, good or bad? Click here for a video from the SciShow Psych YouTube channel.

Here is an article that I enjoyed and an individual, James Clear, who seems to have a great handle on habit formation and change as well as a PAC type approach to the challenges changing ourselves for wellness.


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