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Your Brain on Habit Formations

A new year is the perfect time to set resolutions and make some positive changes to our lives but what happens when we get to the end of January? Did you start out with great intentions only to find that you’ve slipped back into those old habits again? Let’s talk about how your brain works in habit formation and how understanding it can lead to longer lasting change. What is a habit and how are they formed? Habits are an essential part of our daily lives. They shape our behaviour and influence our actions, both consciously and unconsciously. Habits are formed through a process known as habituation, which occurs in the brain. This process involves the firing of electrical currents down neural pathways through the repetition of a specific behaviour and strengthened over time. Our ability to strengthen the connection between neurons or synapses is called synaptic plasticity allowing them to communicate. Neurons that fire together wire together.

2 weeks down the track you might still be thinking about your morning coffee habit rather than trying something else first thing in the morning. A new habit needs to be practiced for more than 2 weeks for the activation of firings along new neural pathways to become stronger, thicker, and longer. Science says that it can take at least 21 days for the habit to start forming in the brain and the neural pathways Why does it become harder to keep a new habit? You might be usually lured by the smell of coffee and this triggers the memory of a morning ritual; and then your senses become activated. You make your coffee, and it is nice, but somehow doesn't leave you with the same feeling as a new habit you have formed at the beginning of this year. Will you continue your new habit or revert to coffee? What’s going on in the brain for this to occur?

The process of habituation involves the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that plays a key role in reward processing and motivation. Dopamine is released when a behaviour is first performed, providing a feeling of pleasure or satisfaction. As the behaviour is repeated and the neural pathway is strengthened, the release of dopamine decreases. This leads to the behaviour becoming less rewarding and more automatic. How different would the world be if we still received a dopamine release every time we did something that is now automatic to us?

Why is it more difficult to keep a new habit in a different situation? Habits are often context-dependent, meaning they are more likely to be performed in certain situations or environments. For example, if I go on holiday overseas, the normal cues and triggers that I use at home to maintain new habits and healthy eating habits are not likely to be present and if I’m not consciously choosing to keep up that practice then it’s likely I will slip into my older habit with its stronger neural pathways and be heading to the nearest coffee shop first thing in the morning!

If on the other hand, I take steps to take some of those triggers with me and organise myself accordingly, my habit will be easier to maintain while overseas. How do emotions effect habit formation? Emotions play a role in habit formation. Habits that are formed during times of stress or negative emotions, such as anxiety or depression, are more likely to persist than those formed in positive emotional states. This is because stress and negative emotions increase the release of dopamine, making the behaviour more rewarding and therefore more likely to become a habit. Why do some people find habit formation easier than others? Some people naturally have greater synaptic plasticity and are able to form strong neural pathways and a study by Fernando Gomez-Pernilla suggests that diet and exercise can help to improve your synaptic plasticity.

Other traits such as impulsivity or compulsivity can make it more difficult to form new habits but not impossible. Summary New learnings, take time and practice just like introducing a new computer system into the workplace or changing from working in the office to hybrid. The more we practice the better we get and if this new habit is enjoyable, it’s for sure that the brain will make the adjustment for you.

By understanding how your brain works to form new habits, you can make it a little easier on yourself by using diet and exercise to improve your synaptic plasticity, make conscious choices of your environment and triggers and be mindful of your emotions.

I’m determined to keep up my new habits. How about you? What new habits have you created for the new year that you’ve been able to keep so far?

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