7 Ways to Use Your Brain to Change Any Habit (Even Really Bad Ones)

7 Strategies to Get Out of a Rut

Are you stuck in a rut? Do you find yourself falling back into the same old habits even though you want to adopt healthier ones? Whether you’re trying to quit smoking, kick your sugar habit, or stop losing your temper, you need neuroscience on your side to help you do it.

Change is easy if you know how to do it.

HOW THE BRAIN DEVELOPS HABITS

When neurons fire together, they wire together, through a process called long-term potentiation (LTP), and habits and responses become an ingrained part of your life. LTP occurs when the brain learns something new, whether it’s good or bad, and causes networks of brain cells to make new connections. Early in the learning process, the connections are weak, but over time, as behaviors are repeated, the networks become stronger, making the behaviors more likely to become automatic, reflexive, or habitual. At this point, the networks are said to be “potentiated.”

BRAIN REGIONS INVOLVED IN HABIT FORMATION

Along with long-term potentiation, it’s important to know about two areas of the brain that are involved with flexibility and habit formation: the anterior cingulate gyrus (ACG) and the basal ganglia.

  • ACG: Located deep in the frontal lobes the ACG allows us to shift our attention, go from thought to thought, move from idea to idea, see options, go with the flow, and cooperate. When the ACG is healthy, we tend to be flexible, adaptable, cooperative, and learn from our mistakes. When the ACG is overactive, often due to low levels of the calming neurotransmitter serotonin, people tend to get stuck on negative thoughts or negative behaviors and be uncooperative.
  • Basal ganglia: Located deep in the brain, the basal ganglia are involved with integrating thoughts, emotions, and movement, which is why we jump when we get excited or freeze when we become scared. The BG may be involved in habit formation, according to studies. Research suggests that when the basal ganglia are overactive people tend to struggle with generalized anxiety, dislike uncertainty, and avoid conflict. With increased activity, there can be repetitive behaviors, such as tics, nail-biting, and teeth grinding, and compulsions, such as hand washing and checking locks.

7 STRATEGIES TO GET OUT OF A RUT

Strategy 1. Boost serotonin naturally.

When serotonin levels are low, the ACG and basal ganglia tend to be more active, which can inhibit change and contribute to inflexibility and getting stuck on negative thoughts or negative behaviors. To help calm these areas of the brain, increase serotonin. When you feel stuck in a rut:

  • Exercise
  • Try bright light exposure (studies show it increases cognitive flexibility)
  • Eat tryptophan-containing foods (such as eggs, turkey, seafood, chickpeas, nuts and seeds, sweet potatoes, quinoa)
  • Take nutritional supplements that can raise brain levels of serotonin (saffron, 5-HTP, and l-tryptophan)

Strategy 2. Define what you want and why.

To help the front part of your brain lead the way, it helps if you clarify which behaviors you want to change. Your brain makes happen what it sees. What ruts would you like to turn into superhighways of success? Write them out. Create a vivid and believable “Future of Success” in detail. Define what you want, then ask yourself “does it fit?”—is your behavior getting you what you want?

If not, be clear with yourself that every time you engage in the wrong behavior, it is strengthening your brain to do the wrong thing. Whenever you do the right thing, it is beginning to strengthen those circuits instead. Practice does not make perfect. It makes the brain do what you practice. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Practice does not make perfect. It makes the brain do what you practice. Perfect practice makes perfect. Click To Tweet

Strategy 3. Assess your readiness for change.

Are you ready to change to eliminate the ruts in your life? Ambivalence and uncertainty are the enemies of change.

Strategy 4. Know what you need to do.

What are the new behaviors you need to master to be successful? For any problem, such as losing weight, overcoming an addiction, calming your temper, or getting distracted, it is critical to know which important behaviors will help you reach your goal, then practice them over and over.

Strategy 5. Develop “if-then” plans to overcome your vulnerable moments.

It’s important to know your most vulnerable moments. Once you identify them, you can create contingency plans to overcome unwanted behaviors. Psychology professor Peter Gollwitzer from New York University has published extensive research on behavior change. He recommends that people create “if-then” scenarios that spell out how they’ll break unwanted habits. If x happens (situation), then I will do y (pre-planned action). For example, IF I am tempted to eat unhealthy foods, THEN I’ll at least eat the healthy ones first.

According to research in Social Neuroscience, using this simple technique has been shown to increase activity in the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s supervisor, which can help override the brain’s automatic or reflexive behaviors from the ACG and basal ganglia.

In a similar way, the two most important words in the English language when it comes to brain health are “then what.” If I do this, then what happens? Thinking ahead helps to prevent a lot of unwanted trouble.

The two most important words in the English language when it comes to brain health are “then what.” If I do this, then what happens?—Amen Clinics

Strategy 6. Reframe your pain.

If you’re ever going to succeed at changing, you have to disarm your impulses and make the right choices pleasurable. The only way you can sustain change is to change what brings you pleasure! Learn how to find what you love about not being inebriated, or identify great low-calorie, highly nutritious food. Learn to find what you love about exercise. Mindset is key.

Strategy 7. Turn accomplices into friends.

The people you spend time with matters! Cultivating bad habits—and good ones—is a team sport. Accomplices are people who encourage or are complicit with your negative behaviors. Bad habits need lots of accomplices to start and sustain them. Friends, mentors, or coaches are people who support your positive behaviors. Ask for their help. Adding friends improves your chances for success up to 40%, and this is especially true for weight loss and fitness.

If you have bad habits that are causing problems in your everyday life, relationships, or career, it’s important to seek treatment. The neuropsychiatrists, functional medicine physicians, and nutritionists at Amen Clinics can help.

At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, remote clinical evaluations, and video therapy for adults, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.

2 Comments

  1. Great Article!

    Please, know, “It took alot of time, sometimes greater than 40 years to develop any of these bad habits into ‘one’s own self-deprecating, daily ritual’ (known to harm oneself, considered a bad behavior for one’s personal health and mind.)” Yes, sometimes, that poor behavior may have developed within as little as a single week, or a month, or some relatively brief time span. Regardless, as Dr. Amen suggests, above, “One must first RECOGNIZE the desire to change the behavior.”

    Please, also note, “Changing a poor behavior does NOT ALWAYS have ‘an easy-button.'” Life is HARD, sometimes. One must CHOOSE for one’s self a forward path to follow, no matter the outside input knocking on the door to attempt to get through to the afflicted individual (as others, such as family, friends, and co-workers see in that person.)

    It has taken me over 1 full year to get to this point where I am slowly changing many “bad behaviors” into “better behaviors.” For instance, today, I still drink about 6 (8 oz) coffees per day, but not 8 – 12, and I have reduced from 2 tsp sugar to 1 tsp sugar per cup (and never a monster coffee any larger than 12 oz.) Today, I take daily natural supplements, as recommended by the Atlanta Amen Clinics team in order to rebuild a more correct balance of minerals, nutrients, and vitamins. Smoking cigarettes began very young, though almost an extension of my left hand, the number per day is steadily reducing, because “the cravings are beginning to reduce.”

    These are but three examples of devoting enough self-awareness attention to work toward changing my own behaviors. And, YES, one of the most important steps included, “MAKE A PLAN.” The very most important step may have been, “Do whatever it takes to implement the plan, beginning Today and then continuing forward Each and Every Day.”

    I’m pleased.

    Again, thanks to my close friends, family members, and the Amen Clinics team for helping me begin to implement The Plan.

    Comment by Alabama.Brian — December 14, 2020 @ 6:33 AM

  2. I would like to get in touch with the Doctor so that I can discuss and start my treatment if it is in virginia va 22025,22192 or any other Drs’ office nearby. I have major issues started about may be a year ago. Thank you blessings

    Comment by patriciathee — December 28, 2020 @ 4:28 AM

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