Building and Breaking Habits: It’s more than you think

  • April

    WE’RE ALL FAMILIAR WITH PAVLOV’S DOG EXPERIMENT, where Pavlovian took a neutral stimulus (the sound of a tuning fork) and was able to condition his dog to associate it with eating and to elicit an unconditioned response (salivation).

    The conditioning aspect of this experiment was repeating the ringing of the tuning fork (stimulus) and setting out a plate of delicious food (reward). Pavlov’s dog stored this relationship to memory because it resulted in a specific positive result.

    • Stimulus = ring of tuning fork
    • Response = salivation
    • Reward = food

    Goal-oriented and voluntary behaviours are different from habits, although all habits are at some point conditioned to be reflexive.

    Pavlov trained his dog to associate the ring of a tuning fork with dinner time which resulting in increase drooling. Photo credit: pixabay

    Pavlov conditioned his dog to associate the ring of a tuning fork with dinner time which resulting in increased drooling. Photo credit: pixabay

    Goal-directed actions are controlled by their expected consequences or results while habits by antecedent stimuli [5]. Antecedent stimuli are things or events that logically precedes an event based on your past experience and memory.

    For example, if I exit the bathroom, my habit is to turn off the light switch even if my boyfriend is still brushing his teeth.

    The sound of a tuning fork and salivation have nothing in common yet through repetitive training, Pavlov was able to condition his dog to drool whether or not food was present. This is now an unconscious habit.

    Goal-directed behaviours --> Habits

    Habits are not guided by outcome expectancy rather Stimulus-Response (S-R) learning [5].

    Physiology of the brain: HABITS AND THE BASAL GANGLIA

    Goal-directed actions and decisions occur in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. Meanwhile, habit formation occurs in the basal ganglia of the cerebrum. The basal ganglia also plays a key role in the development of emotions, memories, and pattern recognition [6].

    Dopaminergic reward-patterns in the mesolimbic centers of the brain reinforce habits but can also be susceptible to sensitization by various drugs, hormonal imbalances, or previous traumatic events [6].

    While performing a habit you can basically shut-off your brain or even multi-task while the habit runs on autopilot. That’s why you can easily sing or have a conversation with a friend while driving to work.

    SCARY FACT: Most car accidents take place within just 25 miles of home because people don’t pay the same attention (or turn on their prefronal cortex) as when they are driving somewhere unfamiliar.

    The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

    The psychological differences between good and bad habits is very little. Every habit we take on served a purpose at some point and has now become automatic.

    Whether it’s your morning coffee, afternoon workout or evening smoke, if you do it consistently or regularly it’s probably a habit and now you need to determine if it is harming or helping you.

    History has shown us that everything is toxic and it is only the dose that separates the toxic from the non-toxic.

    For example, the habit of exercising everyday after work is a positive habit, but it has the potential to be dangerous:

    • over-stressing or abusing the body
    • causing physical injury from too much weight or intensity
    • not allowing the body enough time to heal
    • feeling guilty or obsessive
    • having exercise define who you are
    • taking illegal drugs or supplements to enhance your workouts
    • starting anorexic or bulimic eating patterns

    Even being conscious of your health can become excessive and extreme. The term Orthorexia is a type of eating disorder that has one mentally preoccupied with eating “healthy” foods.

    My golden rules: 1. move everyday, 2. Eat your veggies.

    My golden rules: 1. move everyday, 2. Eat your veggies.

    CONFESSION: With all the research I do on nutrition and exercise, I especially have to be reminded that living a “balanced” life means enjoying an “unhealthy treat” here and there.

    There is also a fine line where goal-oriented behaviours become habits and then slip into addictions.

    Goal-oriented behaviours --> Habits --> Addictions

    Addiction has often been viewed simply as a maladaptive type of habit learning [5]. Let’s look at an example:

    1. As we saw with Pavlovian conditioning, a stimulus-response relationship (ie. morning = drinking coffee) is learned as long as the expected outcome is produced (ie. stimulant).
    2. When habits are formed the conditioned response happens regardless of the outcome (ie. morning = drinking coffee even when you’re not tired).
    3. With addictions, the conditioned response is still produced even if it prevents the expected outcome (ie. morning = drinking coffee even if it makes you more groggy).

    It’s understandable that stressful events can bring on habit and addiction patterns for a variety of reasons:

    • distraction
    • to numb feelings
    • create the belief of being in control
    • not being conscious or mindful of what you are doing, or
    • simply that you are running on autopilot and unaware

    However, addictions can also acquire acute motivational properties called “incentive salience“, which is a measurement of how much the reward is ‘wanted‘ rather than ‘liked‘ [5]. Particular acute situations can cue for these motivators to greatly enhance addictions.

    For example, an ex-smoker may be completely in control but if he walks past someone lighting up a cigarette (cue), this can trigger a momentary impulsive desire to smoke.

    Cues not only trigger for the desire to consume the unconditioned rewards, but it can pull a person to search or be hyper-aware of these cues. The cues can become a motivational magnet and amplified by the physiological state [7].

    As mentioned earlier, sensitization of the dopaminergic system can happen in addictive states. This means when the system is triggered by cues, it is hyper-reactive to release more dopamine than normal leading to stronger urges independent of the addictive chemical reactions [6]. This hyper-reactive dopamine state lasts far longer (up to years) than the actual drug withdrawal symptoms, which can cause the most distress in recovering addicts [6].

    If Pavlov’s dog hadn’t eaten all day (heightened physiological state), I bet you he’d be listening intently for that ring and maybe even confuse the squeak of the door for it and start salivating even more than if he actually heard the ring 1 hour after eating.

    Avoiding triggering cues and adopting practical stress reducing tools is just the tip of the iceberg for recovering addicts. Professional medical care needs to be a priority for successful lifestyle changes.

    What Are Your Habits?

    Remember, “good” and “bad” are on a continuum. Too much of a good thing can be bad, so if your habits are excessive but healthy in nature, it doesn’t mean you have to give them up totally (unless they’re out of control or acutely harmful).

    For this exercise, assume the following:

    • Good habit = something that supports a balanced state of mental, emotional and physical health
    • Bad habit = something that is destructive or detrimental to your mental, emotional or physical health OR the health of someone else.

    Writing out your habits is important to deciphering the motives that drive them. Both good and bad habits will often have similar motives. The most challenging aspect is to be honest.

    Habits or addictions that you want to keep will find clever reasons for serving your health.

    The best strategy is to write out your list and then have a close friend or family member also write out one for you. Ask someone you trust and who can be honest. Remember, the purpose is to build more happiness and freedom into your life, not create conflict. Take the list no matter what is written and say, “Thank you”.

    Take both lists and see which habits overlap. If it is an important habit to you and your trusted friend, take a closer look. Write out a list of supportive and destructive features for the habit.

    For example: Smoking

    Supportive Destructive
    Stress Management Physically damaging
    Relaxation Expensive
    Excuse to go outside Difficulty breathing while exercising
    Socializing Affecting my relationship with my girlfriend
    Stimulant Mentally time and energy consuming
    Helps with bowel movements Uneasy traveling long flights
    Uneasy at restaurants and meetings
    Coughing disrupts my sleep
    Get colds and flus easily
    Tired if without smoking for 4 hours
    Feel judged
    Self-conscious about body odour

    All your habits and addictions will have positive and negative aspects and the supportive factors will always involve an emotional component.

    If the positive aspect is stress management and the negative aspects are a mile long, you know that finding a healthier stress management tool should be your priority before you even start to think of giving up the habit.

    You know smoking has detrimental consequences to your health, so why is it so hard to give up? Photo credit:

    You know smoking has detrimental consequences to your health, so why is it so hard to give up? Photo credit:

    Let’s Get to Work

    Deep breath. Changing habits takes a lot of conscious effort, especially during stressful times and acute situational cues.

    So let’s start with a plan. What positive factors did you get out of your “bad” habit?

    Be creative and find healthier ways to achieve these supportive traits without the negative side effects. If you already have practices in place that work for you use them. You don’t need to re-invent the wheel.

    There are many ways to balance your state of mind:

    • Meditation and mindfulness
    • Ten deep controlled breathing
    • Exercise and be active
    • Visiting a counsellor or doctor
    • Join a support group
    • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
    • Relaxing exercises: taking a bath, lighting candles, calming music, herbal teas
    • Gratitude journal
    • Turn off all electronics
    • Get a good nights sleep
    • Sing, yell, maybe even cry
    • punch a pillow or break a plate
    • Lay down in a dark room
    • Remove yourself from the situation and get some fresh air
    • Drink a glass of water
    • Count to 100
    • Limit your exposure to negative news, social media and avoid gossip
    • Find someone you can confide in and can hold you accountable
    • Build a new healthy habit

    This last point may utilize one of the above technique during a stressful situation, trigger or withdrawal phase. Let’s look at how to implement a new habit.

    How To Build a New Healthy Habit

    Just like working in a new pair of shoes, the first few weeks may be uncomfortable. There are 3 R’s to replacing negative habits with more positive ones.

    1. Reminder – this might be a cue or urge to indulge in your habit (ie. each time you crave chips, you will stop and do 10 deep breaths then re-evaluate the urge. If it’s still there, do another 10 breaths, find out what the purpose of the chips are for you) 
    2. Routine – making a habit of always following the same practice with the trigger will help solidify the association (ie. you might eat the chips forgetting that you were supposed to do your deep breaths first, so do them as soon as you remember)
    3. Reward – find a healthier reward for following your new habit (ie. if you have the craving, do your 10 deep breaths and feel you don’t really want the chips anymore, call up or text your support friend to share your achievement)

    It’s tough to change habits and it takes consistent and conscious effort. Now-a-days, it’s not only the grocery store ads or your friends and family who influence your habits, but social media.

    Social media and online advertisements are getting so smart at knowing what you want before you want it. They watch the patterns of your purchases, clicks, views and even the amount of time you spend on a site as an algorithm to assess what kind of ads and news you are interested in seeing. They use emotion, logic, and repetitive training to have you wanting what they are selling.

    Be aware and use your judgement to determine if you need to limit your online usage to break your patterns.

    The best time to change a habit is outside of your regular routine, for example a vacation.

    If you always smoke first thing in the morning, use a planned vacation to break that pattern. And when you come home, change your regular routine as well. Introduce a new habit like showering right away, or making a delicious smoothie.

    Do you have a strategy that has worked for you? I’d love to hear about it. Feel free to comment below or email me at

This website is NOT to be used as a diagnostic or treatment tool. Always consult with your Conventional Medical Doctor or Naturopathic Doctor for specific concerns. In cases of medical emergencies visit your nearest hospital or call 9-1-1.