We don’t know a single person who isn’t trying to either establish a new habit that they know would be good for them, or break a habit that they know isn’t serving them. It’s really not easy! Changing our behaviors, even in small ways, can seem completely out of reach much of the time. We’ll be spending a few blog posts looking at behavior change and mindfulness. This month, we’ll take a look at why it’s so darn tough, and strategies that really just don’t work well (even though the majority of people believe that they do!). The majority of these posts will be inspired by Dr. Jud Brewer’s work, and we’ll provide more resources at the end.
First, let’s look at how habits get established in the first place. From a behavioral perspective, it basically goes like this….trigger –> behavior –> reward. At some point, all habitual behaviors (even the ones we know aren’t good for us) resulted in some type of payoff. The reward might be relief from an unpleasant experience, or the introduction of a very pleasurable experience. For example, let’s say I receive an unexpected medical bill that I don’t have the savings to pay. I open the bill, and am flooded by anxiety, helplessness and dread. As I think about what this all means (how did i let this happen?! i’m going to have to borrow money…) the feelings grow and grow. Now, let’s say, I happen to be close to the kitchen, which just happens to have a bag of cookies in the cupboard. I eat one, and experience an immediate hit of satisfaction and relief from all those painful experiences. So I eat another (more relief) and another. My brain declares victory “we solved the problem!!!”, and a powerful lesson is learned. The next time I feel that same sense of anxiety, helplessness, or dread….cookies! Of course, my brain is a bit of a one-trick pony. We all know that my actual problem went nowhere, and that my cookie habit could easily spiral into a full fledged sugar addiction. But from an evolutionary perspective, my brain has done its job. Immediate relief from unpleasant experiences equals increased chances of survival. Ahhhhh. This learning pathway is incredibly powerful, and these connections are made very quickly. From that point on, every time I reach for a sweet in times of anxiety – the pathway is strengthened. It can become so engrained and automatic, that it doesn’t even feel like a choice anymore.
Let’s take a moment and observe two strategies that research has shown do NOT work to break this vicious cycle. The first bum strategy is willpower. We have to realize that the conditioning that established these habits in the first place is incredibly powerful. It is responsible for no less than the survival of our entire species. Willpower can’t hold a candle to this process! And what’s worse, when willpower fails, it fails big. Maybe I can power through on shear willpower for a week or two with no sweets. But willpower runs out; it can’t be sustained at a high level for a prolonged time. And when it runs out – there’s an entire empty cookie bag as evidence.
The second no-good strategy is obtaining more information about all the reasons why my cookie habit is unhealthy. My cookie habit feels awful – it makes me physically sluggish, results in weight gain, increases feelings of shame, and costs a lot of money. Having all the reasons why I should stop binging on cookies, is highly unlikely to result in real changes – and this is supported in research. The lack of effectiveness of this strategy has frustrated countless well meaning concerned friends, family members, and healthcare providers for centuries. It is a rather intellectual strategy, with little impact on changing behaviors perpetuated by powerful brain rewards (sweets!).
And now for some good news. Mindfulness offers us another way. And what’s most compelling is that applying mindfulness to behavior change can actually help to change some of these patterns, instead of attempting to work against them. As a start, mindfulness skills allow us to bring curiosity to our unhelpful patterns, allowing us to consider what our triggers and rewards actually are. For example, maybe I come to realize that financial stress and related feelings of anxiety (trigger) leads to eating sweets (behavior), which leads to temporary relief from anxiety and a short-term hit of pleasure (reward). We know that one of the many benefits of a consistent mindfulness practice is increased awareness of emotions as they arise in real time. Armed with the knowledge that anxiety related to financial stress is a trigger for my unwanted behavior, and bolstered by a stronger ability to know what I’m feeling as I’m feeling it (thanks to my mindfulness practice), I now have the option of pausing and breathing before I automatically reach for a cookie – thereby slowing the cycle down considerably. Maybe the next time I notice myself worrying about finances and feeling anxiety, I’ll recognize my feelings early on, and take 5 minutes to breathe and observe with curiosity instead of automatically heading for the kitchen.
So, mindfulness skills can help us to understand triggers to unwanted behavior, and offer us the option of noticing when triggers are present. Mindful awareness can also help to break the cycle on the level of reward. For behaviors that are habits, our brains go into short-hand mode. Meaning, its not so much the actual cookie that’s providing the relief from anxiety, but the idea of the cookie. What would happen if, when triggered, I actually mindfully and purposefully ate a cookie? Really slowing it down, and bringing real curiosity to the experience of eating the cookie in a triggered state. Eating the cookie this way puts me in touch with the actual rewards of eating a cookie. Maybe, I’ll find that eating one cookie slowly provides me all the relief I need, and I stop there. Or, maybe I find that eating the cookie provides me no actual relief at all, and quickly leads to feeling of shame. This is important information! And it starts to corrode the reward value of the cookie. If my brain receives the message that the cookie actually isn’t so rewarding after all, the entire cycle loses its power.
We’ll have more to say on this topic – but for now, consider that all (yes, all) behavior that has become habitual, begins with a trigger, and ends with a reward. We’d like to invite you to bring curiosity to ways this cycle plays out in your life over the coming month.