Photo Credit to Liji Jinaraj - Flickr


Breaking Out of Old Habits and Cycles of Addictive or Impulsive Behaviour


At Counselling Whitton, I endeavour to support people as they change for the better. If you want to change an unwanted habit, or pattern of behaviour you need to first understand the process of habit formation. This way you can create an effective strategy to counteract the old habit with a new one and break the cycle of unwanted behaviours. This strategy can be used effectively for impulses, routines and even addictions, although some unwanted behaviours are more obviously difficult to break. You can use this process of habit formation for – quitting smoking, impulsive behaviour, sensation-seeking, alcohol dependency, OCD, phobias, anxious-avoidant behaviours and anger management.

A habit is a learned response to a specific stimuli. That may sound obvious but when it is repeated again and again, it creates a neural pathway in the brain with a very strong signal that is hard to override. If every time you come home after a hard day’s work, you instinctively reach out for a glass of wine or beer to relieve your stress, then you have a habit. Similarly, if you feel inclined to check that your windows are locked every time you leave the house, you've also acquired a habit. Some of our habits are helpful and some are undesirable, but they may still be hard to break because they provide a “pay-off” in the reward centres of our brain. Just like nicotine or caffeine triggers the release of dopamine that gives us a rush of exhilaration or alertness. If old habits are hard to break, then new habits are often just as hard to form.

We need to lay down the neural pathways and repeatedly reactivate those pathways in order for them to become embedded in the deep structures of our brain and nervous system. That's because the emotional and behavioural patterns we repeat the most, carry stronger as they continually fire powerful neurotransmitters in our brain. The good news, however, is that through repeated firing of neural pathways we can also activate new reward centres in the brain. It then becomes possible to break unwanted habits and form new ones that are more desirable.

Habit formation is the process by which new behaviours are learned through repetitive actions in response to specific stimuli, until that response becomes instinctive and automatic. This is often known in psychology as conditioning. To put it another way, the conditioned response to the stimuli is repeated over and over again, until it becomes second nature.

There are generally two types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning is where the behaviour triggered by a specific stimulus becomes associated over time with another stimulus. For example, Pavlov delivered food to a dog through a mechanism and noted that the conditioned response of the dog was salivating. He then set off an alarm simultaneously and repeatedly over time, which the dog came to associate with the delivery of food. However, Pavlov also discovered that if he simply pressed the alarm bell without the food being delivered, the dog’s conditioned response was so strong that it salivated anyway. Operant conditioning is where the habit formation process is associated and reinforced by rewards and/or punishment. For example, Skinner found that when he put rats in a maze it took them a certain amount of time to learn the right path towards the exit, but they were much more inclined to learn quicker, if they received food as a reward for discovering the way out.

This leaves us with a very simple but effective tool for understanding how to break old habits and form new ones. By simply quitting smoking and having nothing to replace it with, means we are far less likely to succeed.

So how does this process work?

Identify Your Triggers or Stimuli

First you need to identify the stimuli that trigger the unwanted pattern of behaviour. It is important to recognise that while some stimuli are external events or environmental conditions, others are internal events such as physiological sensations, fantasies, memories and thoughts. And these stimuli trigger a response in the limbic region (emotional area) of our brain. Such processes may be identifiable as a simple linear cause and effect e.g. I hear a loud bang which triggers a startle response. Or there may be multiple stimuli which combine to form a more complex pattern of behaviours. So I am triggered by feelings of stress in the office at the end of the day because I am tired, hungry, agitated, under pressure to perform and missing my loved ones at home. Stimuli which trigger a learned response can be physiological sensations, emotional triggers, fantasies, dreams, external events, memories or painful reminders.

Observe Your Habits, Routines and Patterns of Behaviour

Second you need to observe the repetitive habits, routines and patterns of behaviour that are associated with those stimuli. For example, if I fear conflict with people in my workplace, I might develop a pattern of avoidance, so that I learn to side-step situations which involving being present of communicating with my peers when I am in difficulty or make a mistake. Sensory stimuli, whether external or internal interact with the sensory-motor cortex and cause a behavioural response. If this behaviour develops into a pattern that is learned and stored an in the brain’s memory circuits it leads to habit formation. The neural signal of the habit may also be strengthened by reward centres of the brain, releasing endorphins, dopamine and oxytocin to reinforce these patterns with feelings of pleasure. Once you have identified the trigger/s try to observe the learned response. For example, if I feel board and agitated I seek out pleasurable sensations like food, smoking, drinking alcohol to fill my time with feelings of thrilled excitement and a rush of desire – such as sensation-seeking.

Learn the Pay Off or Reward

Next you need to identify one or more rewards which are associated with the habit and reinforce the unwanted pattern of behaviour. Again there may be one or more ‘pay-offs’ than we are at first aware of. And these pay-offs may be induced by pleasurable internal sensations or external events. The rewards may be sensory, emotional, psychological, social or material rewards. For example, when I notice that I am craving a smoke at lunch time, the reward may not only be the rush of nicotine and endorphins in the prefrontal cortex. I may be rewarded by the feeling of escaping the four walls of the office, breathing the ‘fresh air’, talking to friends at the designated smoking area, the paraphernalia associated with smoking and the low-level sense of mischief or rebelliousness.

Replacing the Old Habit with a New One

It is absolutely vital that if you break an old habit, you form a new one with a positive reward to counteract it, rather than leave yourself exposed feeling a sense of craving or abstinence. When forming new habits it’s important to follow the above process as closely as possible, but this time with a set of counter-measures (new strategies) after the stimuli has been triggered. As well as adopting more satisfying long-term rewards, rather than the rush of immediate gratification, which will help you develop stronger signals and more sustainable neural pathways in your brain.

The process works like this:

Recognise when a familiar stimulus has been triggered and pause, or breath before you act. Then rather than follow through on the same routine of old habits, you try a new one; this time seeking rewards which have a more desirable and lasting effect. And leave you with a feeling of contentment or fulfilment, although somewhat replicating the rewards of the old habit. For example, I might notice that other than the rush of dopamine I get from smoking, I realise I like to escape the four-walls of the office, socialise with my colleagues from a different department, release myself from the build-up of tension at my desk and get a sense of fresh air, sunlight and freedom from a change of environment. This means I can develop all of the routines I enjoy and take pleasure from in my breaks without having to include the rush of nicotine from the cigarette.

Another example, which typically true of relationships is the way couples fall into unwanted patterns of bickering and arguments over apparently trivial events. They may also frequently fall into cycles of conflict and having make-up sex to resolve their feelings rather than coming to an explicit agreement or genuine resolution. The problem is not solved but brushed under the carpet, using sex to compensate. This leads to pattern of highly-charged emotion and frustration caused by unresolved tensions, being triggered in order to achieve the intense feelings of relief after a sudden conflict and the rush of sexual release. Much better to be able to remove the angry/fearful impulse for immediate gratification, acknowledge the problems openly, come to an agreement with empathy and understanding and then show gratitude to one another in whatever way they choose. Leaving sex to be associated with a much more pleasurable and loving interaction rather than the pain of conflict and abuse.

Nudge, Not Shove

Also remember this. New habits have to be learned incrementally over time. You need to allow yourself room to experiment and make mistakes without becoming angry or judgemental of yourself. Try forming new habits with a sense of curiosity, playfulness and experimentation. Learn about your habit, spend time observing what you’ve learned and enjoy forming a new one. Rather than put yourself under pressure with big gestures, learn simple ways to nudge yourself towards change.

If you follow this process with old habits that are easier to break and new ones that are easier to form, you will achieve a sense of success early on, rather than the more difficult stubborn habits which are more difficult to unlear