Good habits! Some time ago I wrote about the advantages of having good habits (read it here and here), to save your mental energy and focus it on creative work instead. But, how does a habit come to life, in detail? And what can you do to make sure it becomes a strong and healthy habit?
The part of our brain that handles our habits can’t see the difference in a good or a bad habit. Only on how you respond on different things, how you act and what things you spend your energy and focus on. Often, this tends to be, more or less, habits that are of less healthy character. To get relief of anxiety, unpleasant feelings or other types of emotions.
A bad habit gets worse with time
For example, evert time you have a rough day at work, a situation that causes discomfort of some sort. This can be a missed deadline, an unhappy client or that someone else got the freelance gig you so badly wanted. To ease the pain and the unpleasant feelings you have a couple of glasses of wine. A habit doesn’t need to be an action we perform, but also a thought or how we react on certain feelings or situations.
The more often you try to sooth these feelings of discomfort with wine, fast food, gambling or something else, your body will crave the same thing when the same or a similar discomfort occurs – because how you react on it is a habit. With other words, you have learned your brain to always respond in this way. Because the connections between the brain cells that associate discomfort with wine are strong from repetition (remember the path in the forest). Even if wine gives (mostly a short one) feeling of pleasure, it isn’t a sustainable strategy for your health in the long run = you just make things worse.
Hebb’s Law, the Quantum Zeno Effect and Attention Density
Isn’t the name of some James Bond blockbusters, but exactly how a habit forms in your brain. So, why does our cravings for wine become stronger for each time we try to sooth an uncomfortable feeling? The answer is Hebb’s Law and that is when our nerve cells are activated in the same pattern again and again. This will eventually form a connection between the braincells. When this connection has taken place, your brain is wired to response in that way when an uncomfortable feeling occurs. This will also make the same connection even stronger – and becomes a habit.
This will make our brain associate wine with emotional relief and soothing of pain, resulting that our reward center in the brain is increasing its activity and demands even more wine – a bad habit that becomes worse with time.
So, what is the Quantum Zeno Effect? This is what keeps the nerve cells activated long enough to make Hebb’s Law to work. What the Quantum Zeno Effect does is to stabilize the activated areas of the brain and makes sure they keep activated long enough so Hebb’s Law can form the connections. Just like keeping two surfaces together until the glue has dried.
But what about Attention Density? This is the most important step for creating strong connections between the braincells! Because it is the Attention Density that evokes the Quantum Zeno Effect. And, as the name implies, the more you focus on something the stronger the effect will be, resulting in stronger connections. But be aware, Attention Density can also work against you! Just as the habit center in our brain it can’t see the difference if the things you are focusing on is good or bad for you. It just does its job and the more you focus on the task or thought, good or bad, the better the job it does.
Make the choice to build good habits
To change a bad habit to a good one is not easy nor made during an afternoon. This means creating new connections that is associated with good and healthy habits. For me, it helped so much reading the information above in the book “You are not your brain” by Jeffery M Schwartz and Rebecca Gladding. Now I know how a good habit is formed and can act according to it.
The best tip I have is to just stop for a second when you feel discomfort of some sort or is about to do a destructive habit. Stop, take a deep breath and reflect over what is happening at the moment and what is about to happen. Some would probably call this for a type of mindfulness. By stopping for a second and reflect you can see that you are on your way to get that glass of wine for emotional relief.
Often, we can’t do something about how we feel, BUT WE CAN make an active choice over how we react om these feelings. Like choosing to once again go for alcohol or instead do something that is good for us and moves us forward. As focus is the most important factor to build a habit, we can choose to focus on things that is good for us and that remove our focus on our discomfort. This can be something like calling a friend, attend a workout class, learn a new technique in Adobe Illustrator or something else that need your full attention and focus.
Slowly you will change the bad wiring and habit to something that isn’t destructive. And, you will not react in the same way and hard when the same feeling occurs again. Make sure you do things that are healthy for you and moves you forward as a person.
Stop for a second. Do something healthy. Focus. And remember: a new habit is formed by focus that triggers the Quantum Zeno Effect so Hebb’s Law can happen.
Disclaimer: I’m not against drinking wine or alcohol. But having a habit that makes you use alcohol, fast food, gambling or sex in a destructive way to sooth discomforts is never a good combination or solution.