All habits are held in place by the same brain preference: the path of least resistance. The more you act automatically without thinking, the better the brain likes it. Trouble is, the brain doesn’t balance the ratio between automatic and intentional. With serious addictions, the automatic habit brain can completely take over the conscious, intentional mind. Thinking takes a backseat to what feels insistent in the moment.
Most habits start out feeling good, or at least giving relief from something that feels bad. Once a habit makes you feel better, it starts to build a pathway in the brain that electrical and chemical impulses can zip along without interruption.
Once it has something that works, the brain resists building a new neuronal pathway for a different behavior. From its point of view, why should you stop using a perfectly good pathway in the brain? Listening to this part of the brain that dislikes change is like letting your course be directed by a road maintenance worker. He doesn’t care where you want to go; he just wants to keep the traffic moving. It’s up to us to remember where we want to go and plot our course.
The brain in its effort to be efficient also selectively forgets what started the bad habit in the first place. For example, if we were feeling sad or lonely, we might have learned that overeating was ideal for taking away those feelings. From the brain’s standpoint, once we find a solution to the problematic feeling, why keep focusing on the original distress? It figures we no longer need to be aware of our unhappiness once we have found an easy way to get rid of it. The brain reroutes our thoughts so that the first twinge of distress leads straight into a strong urge to distract ourselves through over-indulgence.
Many bad habits have their roots in past situations in which we felt helpless. Childhood is full of daunting situations that can appear hopeless for a child to change. When children experience emotionally painful situations that are beyond their control, their only outlet may be to turn to pleasures that become bad habits.
Pretty soon, the energy of helplessness automatically becomes the urge to lose ourselves in something pleasurable. We might have been too young, too outmatched, or simply too inexperienced to figure out how to change our circumstances. Instead of focusing on what we really wanted, we became convinced that self-directed action would be defeated. We stopped trying to get what we really wanted and instead numbed ourselves with substitute pleasures.
Fortunately, this is a problem that can be reverse engineered. We can think back from the impulse to find the helpless feeling that started it all in the first place. At what point did it feel like there was nothing you could do? What was the situation your child mind could not find a solution for? It’s not so much that we are avoiding our feelings, as we are escaping that sensation of helplessness.
While it is true that we are often helpless as children, we are not helpless as adults. We have the power to set our own intentions and the will power and freedom to move in directions we want.
The opposite of a compulsive habit rooted in helplessness is taking action toward something that makes things better for you. On the highway of life, you can map your own route toward the outcome you desire. Instead of helplessly following the flagman down a side road you don’t really want, you can consciously choose a new action instead of following the bad habit.
By exercising your intention in the moment, over and over, you build new brain pathways and strengthen your ability to remember you can choose. Helpless feelings are a call to action, not addiction. By facing what is making us feel helpless in our lives and then trying to do things intentionally, we gradually lose interest in blindly following impulses that take us off our path. We start the new business of laying down different brain pathways. It takes awhile, but what counts is that we keep heading where we want to go.
If you’re trying to change an old habit, don’t ask your brain what it feels like doing. That would be like stopping to ask that road guy which way he thinks you should go. He’ll always have the same answer: take the path of least resistance. But you are the driver, so keep your focus on the outcome you want, set your intention, then steer toward that. If you choose again and again, in each present moment, to go toward your preferred destination, your assertive behavior will lay down a new pathway and your brain will get back on board.
Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.