The Science Behind Bad Habits and How to Break Them

Our brains are wired to be habit-forming since this allows us to act on auto-pilot while going about our everyday routine. But what about breaking a bad habit?

Understanding the Brain

Bad habits activate our brain’s reward system. Particularly in times of stress, giving in to a bad habit releases the neurotransmitter dopamine. This chemical floods our body with a feeling of euphoria which we try to recreate by continuing with whatever the habit is. One of the keys to quitting is to reduce these stress levels. The way to do so varies from individual to individual, but plenty of exercise, sufficient sleep and relaxation techniques have all proven helpful.

Recognizing Your Trigger

Psychologists have identified the 3 stages which are crucial in the formation of habits: cue, routine and then reward. The key to breaking a bad habit is to understand what your trigger is and to take steps to avoid it. In this way, you can concentrate on how to achieve your objective with a realistic game plan. Research has shown that a mantra of ‘I mustn’t eat chocolate/smoke a cigarette’ is of limited help as it reminds the brain of what you’re trying so hard to suppress. The answer is to replace a bad habit with a good one. The pattern of neural responses in the brain which led to the bad habit are still there but are replaced by others and become less dominant over time.

Researchers at University College, London have found that breaking a bad habit takes 18-254 days, with an average of 66 days. Therefore, it requires patience and persistence to achieve your goals.

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