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Mind-Body Series: Breaking the Habit

July 30, 2017

By Jaimi Acourt

What is a habit?

At some stage in your life it is likely that you will attempt to change one or more of your health behaviours – whether it is to exercise more often, eat healthier, stop smoking or drink less alcohol. However, for many, such intentions never result in long-term behaviour change1. In fact, research has shown that eating behaviours are especially difficult to change predominantly when this change involves weight loss-related dieting2. Although many attempts to change health behaviour fail, some individuals do show successful behaviour change. This article considers some of the reasons why you might fall back into old habits when you thought you were really focused on your end goals.

I want to make it super clear that I am not here to tell you that you need to change your current health behaviours, or that falling into old habits is necessarily a bad thing. Guilt and negative self-talk are two sure ways to ensure that you do not continue to grow, develop and move forward. The mind is a powerful tool and one that is often overlooked in wellness journeys. The purpose of this blog is to help demystify some of the reasons why it is so hard to change behaviour and provide some useful tips to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

How is a habit formed in our brain?

At a very basic level a habit can be described as a behaviour that is repeated enough times to form an unconscious pattern which effects subsequent responses. Often there is a trigger, which leads to a behaviour, which produces a reward (see Figure 1). Through this positive reinforcement we learn to repeat the process and over time it becomes a habit.

Figure 1: So what’s going on here?

Turns out we are fighting an intrinsic learning process. Using food as an example, it is clear how our brains begin to form complex behavioural habits. For example, primitively, when we see food our brains think “calories and survival”, as such we eat the food in order to fulfil a basic need and our brain begins to lay down a context dependent memory that says, “remember what you ate and where you ate it”.

Subsequently, we learn to repeat the process next time. However, as we have evolved and we no longer need to actively search for food, our brains have adapted to use this learning process for more than just remembering where to find your next meal. Through learning we have begun to attribute eating to psychological, emotional and cognitive cues. Instead of eating for hunger, when you feel sad your brain might say,

“Why don’t you try eating something that makes you feel happy?”

As such we quickly learn that if we eat chocolate when we are sad we feel better. The same intrinsic process is happening, however it is just a different trigger. As such, emotion becomes the driving trigger to eat instead of hunger.

Sad + Eat chocolate = Happy

Behaviour change is complex and if behaviour change is started for the wrong reasons, this can lead to cycles of further negative behaviour. Studies show that dieters who make an intention to eat less or to eat healthier may actually end up eating less healthily and overeating. This is often because dieting revolves around negative intentions such as “I intend not to eat foods high in calories” rather than positively framed intentions such as “I intend to eat foods high in nutrients that nourish my body”2.

The good news is that psychological research has identified some ways to maintain behaviour change for the long-term. Here at PEAQ we believe it is vital to target the mind in conjunction with the body, in order to achieve your wellness goals.

Stay tuned for Part 2!

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References:

1 Kwasnicka, D., Dombrowski, S., White, M. and Sniehotta, F. (2016). Theoretical explanations for maintenance of behaviour change: a systematic review of behaviour theories. Health Psychology Review, 10(3), pp.277-296.

 

2 Ogden, J., Karim, L., Choudry, A. and Brown, K. (2006). Understanding successful behaviour change: the role of intentions, attitudes to the target and motivations and the example of diet. Health Education Research, 22(3), pp.397-405.

 

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