How Habits Affect Our Health, Happiness & Just About Everything In-Between

This article is inspired by a book I read and thoroughly enjoyed last week, called, “The Power of Habits,” by Charles Duhigg. It was incredibly insightful. While turning the pages, I couldn’t help but think of so many of my patients as I learned about the biology and science behind what drives human behavior every day. So often in practice – daily, even – we (Naturopathic Doctors) discuss, strategize, and recommend to our patients certain things that could be altered in daily lifestyle habits to improve or optimize their overall health. Habits affect everybody. Every single person. We are all captive to the innate biological forces that drive our behaviors every day, and most of the time, we are completely unaware of it.

The book goes on to explain the very biological process of how habits – good or bad – become ingrained in the first place. Habits are a moment of unconsciousness, where the brain takes the opportunity to be unaware, and relax, and basically engage in a state of autopilot. A 2006 medical study from Duke University determined that more than 40% of actions people performed each day weren’t actual decisions at all, but habits. From a biological standpoint, this is pure genius at work. If the brain was required to stay focused during every task of the day, this would not only require much more energy, but it would also require more head space! Our heads would need to be much bigger to have hardware for all of that thought processing, which would make childbirth more difficult and as a species this simply doesn’t make biological sense.

So, our brains go on autopilot. They stop participating in the decision-making process in an effort to conserve space and energy. After encountering certain triggers that have developed due to habit, we then engage in a learned behavior without even thinking or noticing it, and then we receive a reward. Some examples of this could include feeling tired (the trigger) –> snacking on sugary foods (the behavior) –> feeling energized and full of endorphins from eating sugar (the reward).

Now, here’s where things get really tricky: When a pattern plays out frequently enough to actually become a habit, we begin to anticipate the reward before we actually even get it, which stimulates reward centers in our brain before we actually even get the prize! Once this neurological pathway is established, if we begin to cognitively expect a reward (all the while not aware of this little game with our brain) and if we don’t receive it, humans (and other animals, as observed in behavioral research studies) can get frustrated, depressed, anxious, and will actually end up making poor decisions, against all logic and reasoning. The emotional mind gets attached to a specific outcome. Against our control, we become emotionally attached to our expectations, ultimately driving a physical behavioral pattern. And this is why habits are so difficult to change.

BUT, they can be changed. We just have to believe that they can, and we also have to bring awareness to these situations. Our brains can’t tell the difference between a good or a bad habit, its simply trying to conserve space and energy all the time, that’s what it’s hard-wired to do. But we can tell the difference, if we pay attention (much easier said than done). We have to be aware of the anticipation. To overpower the habit, we have to recognize the craving, which is the driving force behind our daily behavior and, ultimately, the creation of all of our habits ~ good or bad.

Spark a craving = form a new habit.

Studies show that group support and collaborating with others (much like AA – Alcoholics Anonymous) significantly increases our chances of rerouting devastating behavioral patterns. We can learn to use our biology to our advantage too, and can set triggers and actions into place to rewire our existing habits or create brand new healthier ones.