• Antonia Gooder

Why are bad habits so hard to break?

What are habits?


Scientifically, a habit is a learned, contextual, automatic response (Verplanken & Aarts 1999) that acts as a mental shortcut, enabling you to breeze through a routine task without having to think too hard. In this sense, habits take the dull out of drudgery and streamline your actions - leaving you free to concentrate on other things. Your early morning routine, brushing your teeth, doing sums in your head – these are all things you can do with minimal mental effort. According to one estimate, up to 40% of our behaviour is habitual. (Wood at al 2002) Sometimes, we’re not even aware that our behaviour is habitual until after the event.  Have you ever moved house but still, after work or school, taken the old route home seemingly on autopilot? A habit develops as a strategy to solve a recurring need - such as navigating your way home - and once established can be very hard to change. But if old habits die hard, then how can you kick the ones you don’t want? Before going into battle you need to know what it is you’re up against. A habit is formed by a process called  ‘chunking’, where the brain links together a series of steps that then act as a unit. (A. M. Graybiel 1998) Like the linked carriages of a train, when the first carriage moves the rest automatically follow. Habits are triggered by certain cues or contexts (Lally et al. 2010) so to continue the analogy, once the first carriage is triggered it sets the whole train in motion. To make things even more difficult we are not always aware we’ve been triggered. It’s easy to bite your nails and only notice later when the damage is done. To tackle a habit that's subconscious you have to make the habit visible again so that you can consciously intervene. Being alert to the times or situations when a habit is set off is a good place to start. Another strategy is to change the sensory experience of the habit: wearing a hat can alert hair pullers, painting on bitter gels can notify nail biters. But even if you are alert to the trigger, stopping yourself from acting on it can be very hard. After all, a habit is an entrenched pattern of behaviour that fulfils some kind of need. Your eighth cup of coffee feels good at the time, even if it does then keep you up all night. If you do make a stand to hold out against the habit, then trying to resist the urge can feel very unpleasant. And to make tackling habits even more difficult, we’re hard wired to reach for the option that feels best right now, rather than hold out for a later reward. So where does this leave us? One way to intervene is to approach the habit from the bottom up. A habit develops to serve a need: it is an individual and specific response to an emotional or physical need, a solution that feels right at the time. You might start having a few drinks as a way to relax at the end of a busy day, and only later find that drinking has become a habit. Looking at a habit as a response to a need, we can start to ask ourselves whether there might be different ways to meet those needs? Perhaps new behaviours that don’t have undesirable results: new options, or directions that you haven’t yet considered or even thought of? Sometimes we stick with unwanted habits simply because we can’t find a way to change, or been able to see how we can cope in any other way. Hypnotherapy can be a way to get out of such a rut, and explore new options and ways of doing things. When hypnotized you move towards an elastic state of mind in which you are more ready to imagine and accept new ideas and ways of doing things. It can be hard to see a way out when you are firefighting problems, coping with the strong urges from entrenched habits and feeling despondent and low, but hypnotherapy can help steer you away from your old habits towards the future you want.