How Habits Are Created: The Real Reason You Struggle To Change
It’s late at night. You are driving home from work, you are hungry, tired, and you begin to see the infamous golden arches lighting up your horizon. The sheer image, taste and even the smell of hot, crispy French fries begin to run through your mind and you start salivating at the gums like a dog over a piece of meat. A part of your mind tells you that you shouldn’t pull over and enter the drive-through, as food like this isn’t good for your health and the more you eat it, the unhealthier you become. The only smart thing to do is to go home and make yourself a healthy dinner.
But there is another voice, and it begins to tell you that it has been a long day, so you deserve to treat yourself and the fries will make you feel better! This is a battle we can all relate to — whatever habit you are guilty of having on replay in your life, we can all agree that there are certain battles our logical mind loses, and our desires win. We are aware that we are putting our health and well-being at risk — so we try desperately to kick these bad habits to the curb and encourage ourselves to live a healthier lifestyle.
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Behind the habits
So why are these habits so difficult to change even though we already know they are damaging our well-being? Firstly, it is important that we understand how these negative habits and dependencies are created, so we can equip ourselves with the right tools to make lasting changes are not just fleeting. Nora Volkow, the director of the American National Institute on Drug Abuse who has spent the last fifteen years studying the reason why our habits are so difficult to change reveals the answer she discovered:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in our brains responsible for our feelings of desire. It is the “feel-good” chemical our brain produces when we eat something pleasurable like French fries, or smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol. Dopamine itself cannot depict whether the thing we desire is good for us or not; it simply sends off the signal that leads us to crave it.
This process occurs in two separate phases.
Phase 1: feeling the pleasure
When we experience something pleasurable — like eating McDonald’s French fries — our brains begin to produce dopamine, where it then speeds through to the part of your brain known as the ‘memory center’. Here, a chemical memory has now been created, one where your brain now associates your feeling of pleasure with the action that caused it (i.e. the French fries). Researchers would label this memory as “salient”, which means every time we cross paths with these French fries, our brain now recalls the dopamine hit we previously received from them and thus leaves us wanting more.
Phase 2: the dependence
So, now we understand that dopamine is responsible for our feelings of desire, we can see why we salivate every time we cross paths with our French fries. Since our memory center has recorded what action gave us that pleasurable feeling, every single time we return to that same action, we strengthen the connection and it becomes more and more “salient”, quickly growing into what is called a ‘dependent state.’
Now, our brains have associated this item with a wondrous hit of ‘feel-good’ chemicals, and so the cycle of reminders (cravings) begin to play on repeat. With this understanding of how habits are created in our lives, we can begin to understand why they are so damn hard to break. Every time we try to make a decision based on intellect and rationale — like the decision to drive home and make yourself a healthy dinner — our brains scream “dopamine!” and leaves us with an overwhelming desire to return to the habit.
To fight this urge is to literally go against your brain chemistry, and this is why making changes feels like an uphill battle.
But we are not hopeless.
As an author, I have dedicated a large portion of my life to uncovering the truth behind habits, addictions, and ultimately how we can change them into more positive ones that we are proud of. Information is power. When we are armed with the right decisions, motivation, strength, and solidification of healthy, new ways of living, we can make positive changes in our lives. To not make the change means allowing your brain chemicals to dictate your life — something that we cannot let happen if we want to live a life of empowerment, health, and fulfillment.
It is the very least we deserve!
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