Have you ever made the commitment to ditch an unhealthy habit-guzzling sugary energy drinks all day long, bingeing on Netflix every night, or smoking cigarettes—only to find that after a few days it feels nearly impossible to quit? You might even have started to feel depressed and lost without it. You know you made the right decision, but why is it so hard to follow through? The short answer is your brain doesn’t always want to do what is best for you.
The human brain is extraordinarily complex with its 100 billion neurons and the trillions of connections between them. It is involved in everything you do, think, feel, say, and desire. Your brain makes you who you are, but sometimes it outsmarts you in a way that is deceiving—perhaps even a little manipulative.
The simple explanation for this is the brain is biologically wired for reward and pleasure. Back in the caveman days, this likely served as a survival mechanism in that it provided the motivation to find food and water. Even though access to these is much less of a concern now, the brain still drives us to repeat behaviours that result in a perceived reward, regardless of whether the activity is positive—such as watching a beautiful sunset—or harmful, like using cocaine. One of the key drivers for this is dopamine—a neurotransmitter intricately involved with pleasure, focus, and motivation.
DOPAMINE and the brain’s reward system
Within the brain’s reward circuit are structures that are often referred to as the pleasure centers. Although they are very small, they have a lot of influence over the choices we make. Therefore, whatever you do that causes dopamine to be released, your brain will encourage you to repeat it because it anticipates a reward from that behavior. To make it even more complicated, pleasurable experiences are linked to emotions and memory, which makes giving up unhealthy habits even more challenging.
Your brain’s reward system doesn’t really care that your sugar-filled morning Frappuccino or a few drinks with friends after work each day is adversely affecting your mental health and physical well-being. In fact, just thinking about engaging in these habits causes dopamine to be released and essentially hijacks your brain.
A simple strategy to override your brain’s pleasure centres
Even though bad habits can be tricky to overcome, you can learn how to outsmart your brain’s natural inclinations. With practice, you can override its power and make the healthy changes you want.
When you’re used to doing a certain thing regularly, life can initially feel empty without it—and this is normal. There’s a part of your brain that is kicking and screaming because it isn’t getting the reward from the habit you have given up. One way to help you process this discomfort is to think about the circumstances that got you hooked on it to begin with.
For example, imagine that the unhealthy habit you want to stop is having pizza and a large soda for lunch on too many days each week. Think back to your original memories associated with it. Perhaps you started eating that way in college with a group of good friends, and not only did you enjoy the indulgence and taste of the meal, but also the laughs and camaraderie that came with it. Fast forward a decade or more to where you are today with a multitude of responsibilities and not enough time on your hands. Now, you run out to pick up a big slice of pizza and a soda for washing it down while sitting at your desk during your lunch break. You might not even enjoy it all that much, but you (and your brain) do it because it’s what you (and your brain) have always done.
Notice the difference between the memory of how you felt in college and how your current experience with the pizza habit makes you feel. There’s a very good chance that it’s not as pleasurable as it used to be.
Using this memory-based information, you can start vetoing your brain’s drive to hit the pizza parlour by choosing to adopt a new, healthier lunchtime habit that makes you feel better about yourself. Start becoming aware of the benefits you experience from, for example, choosing a salad with grilled chicken and having sparkling water instead of having pizza. Pay attention to how the healthy choice nourishes your body and brain, increases your energy, and maybe even helps you lose a few extra pounds. Keep your focus on all the positive things you are gaining with this change.
Revising behaviours that have been reinforced over time won’t happen overnight. It takes daily practice. Each day, remind yourself about the positive and pleasurable feelings associated with your new habit. Regardless of what you want to change, the more you do it, the more it gets wired into your brain as a reward and puts you back in the driver’s seat for choosing what is best for you.
At Sundardas Naturopathic Clinic, we’re here for you.
Prof Sundardas D Annamalay
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When our emotions are running our lives, we are not in a state of calm aliveness. Rather, there are imbalances in the nervous system that cause problems. It causes imbalances in other systems and organs in our body. Not to mention how these imbalances influence our thoughts, feelings and behaviours towards ourselves and others.”
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