Breaking Bad (Part 1): How a Habit Starts

We all have habits – some good, some not so good. But how do they come about and why are they so hard to break?

The word ‘habit’ often has a negative connotation, as we tend to associate it with addictive or negative behaviour – overeating, smoking, watching too much TV, nail biting, gambling or excessive drinking.

But, despite what you may believe, a habit can be changed to have a positive effect on your daily life, establishing routine behaviour that’s actually good for you – getting enough sleep, healthy eating, affirmations, positive self-talk and exercising regularly.

What Kicks Off a Habit?

To begin changing an habitual behaviour, it helps to understand exactly what a habit is – how it forms and how you can replace an old one that isn’t so great with a positive new one.

A habit is simply routine behaviour you engage in on a regular basis, a reoccurring and often unconscious pattern solidified by constant repetition.

It’s a product of what’s referred to as ‘classical conditioning’, discovered over a century ago by a Nobel Prize winning Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov.

‘Classical conditioning’ is learning a new behaviour via the process of association, where two stimuli are linked to produce a new learned response.

For example – in the case of an emotional eater – when they’re feeling stressed, sad, anxious or extreme emotion, something has triggered them to use food as a source of comfort.

Working With the Habit Loop

Because food can’t fix the ‘problem’, the original issue remains and is usually compounded by a feeling of guilt or shame.

So what forms and strengthens is the ‘habit loop’, a phrase coined by author and New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg in in his book The Power of the Habit.

The ‘habit loop’ forms when a cue – such as stress, anxiety, depression, low self-esteem – then triggers a desire or feeling that leads to a specific behaviour – such as overeating, smoking, biting nails, gambling, excessive drinking – to satisfy that desire or feeling.

Do you have a few habits that need work? Check out Breaking Bad (Part 2): 10 Steps to Bust a Habit. It’s as easy as 1, 2, 3!

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