Updated: Jun 2, 2021
Sometimes we get into habits which feel natural and automatic. Over time we may start to recognise that some of our habits are unhelpful or even harmful.
You may think that once a habit is set, that is it. But we can definitely relearn habits by retraining our brain.
Here are the 5 steps involved in relearning a habit:
Before we start doing anything, we need to be aware that our habit is causing us issues. When we recognise this, then we can move onto the next steps.
2) Willingness to Change
Although we may become aware that what we have been doing is unhelpful, that doesn’t mean change will come automatically. We have to be willing to commit to investing our time and energy to relearn.
3) Choice Point
Now that we know we have an issue and have committed to acting on this knowledge, we are at the ‘fork in the road’ or choice point. Do I choose to continue doing what I’ve always done and therefore, get the same result that I’ve always gotten? OR do I try something different and get a potentially good, neutral, or bad result? For some people, the possibility of a bad result is enough to stop them in their tracks.
But the good thing with Psychology is that it’s a science (Yay! Science!). This means that the strategies that I suggest to my clients have been tried and tested by others with similar issues and backgrounds and will usually end with good and at worst, neutral results (if used correctly). This is one of the benefits of seeing a Psychologist so that you don’t have to figure it out all on your own using trial and error.
And wouldn’t it be great if once we figured out what was required for the good result, we would just continue to do it until the end of time? Unfortunately, relearning habits isn’t so straight forward. We can’t just plug in the new programming and expect it to continue working that way indefinitely (ahh dammit!). As humans, we will relapse or slip back into old habits like that comfy hoodie we like to wear to bed.
That seems a bit bleak doesn’t it? But have no fear! As long as we have 2 factors, we can be guaranteed to retrain our brain to keep up the new, more desirable habit. Effort and time.
Or more accurately, Effort over Time. When we practice things over time, we are re-wiring our brain to take a new neural pathway and to stop taking the old one (the Psyc nerd in me gets so excited at this fact!). We can literally change the way our brain responds!
So yes, we will relapse at some point but that gives us another opportunity to learn, by becoming aware, committing to a new course of action, and making the choice that is right for us.
Will this be an endless hamster wheel that we have to keep running on? Not if we do it enough times!
Progress will not look like a nice straight line. We will relapse but each time we do, we get faster at becoming aware of that fact. We’ll then stay in the “good” zone for longer and longer periods of time. Relapses will become shorter, until we’re able to pick up that we’re about to relapse and prevent it from happening altogether.
Once we get to that stage, our brain has well and truly forged a new neural pathway and the habits of old have now grown over in our minds. We might occasionally feel the urge to revisit that old path, but with the new one much more easily accessible, we’ll choose the most effortless course.
An Example - Quitting Smoking
First thing we need to do is become aware of why smoking is unhelpful for us.
Health effects - not being able to keep up with your kids, issues with your lungs, worrying about cancer.
Social exclusion - when you're the only one who needs to leave the conversation to go and have a smoke.
Financial consequences - Cigarettes are expensive $$$ and you'd rather spend that money on a nice dinner with your partner.
Willingness to Change
Just because we've recognised that smoking is bad for us, doesn't necessarily mean we're going to quit smoking. You might be thinking, "well something is going to kill me anyway", or "smoking is my way to relax, I need it", or "at least I'm not spending money on heroin".
But once we recognise that smoking isn't getting us closer to what's important to us (e.g. spending more time with those we care about, saving for a holiday), we then decide it's time to make a change. We've made the commitment to stop engaging in smoking because it is unhelpful and harmful to us. And we've made the commitment to put in the time and effort to try something else.
At the choice point, there's a recognition that "if I keep doing what I've always done, I'll keep getting the same bad result I've always gotten". In this case, if you continue smoking, you'll continue experiencing the negative health, social and financial consequences.
But what are my other options? For some people, the first thought when they don't want to continue a habit, is to do the opposite. With smoking, that's going 'cold turkey'. Now this could lead to a good (for a few), neutral (for some), or bad (for most) result. This is because going 'cold turkey' is very much a roll of the dice and not the most effective way of relearning this habit.
If however, you were to seek support from a professional like your GP, Psychologist or Quitline, through their experiences, and more importantly the science (yay for science again!), they would suggest strategies that would be more beneficial and sustainable in the long-term which would be less likely to elicit a bad result. Some of these might be setting SMART goals to slowly decrease the amount you're smoking, telling friends/family to keep you accountable, learning other ways to relax to replace smoking as the only coping strategy.
So we've been doing well for a while, following our SMART goals with friends keeping tabs on your progress. But you've had a really busy and stressful week and you just need to get out of the office. You find some cigarettes stashed at the back of your drawer and decide that this will take the edge off things. You go outside and take a puff.
Whoops! You remember all the progress you've made over the last few weeks and are disappointed that you smoked that extra cigarette outside your plan. You forgot to implement some of the coping strategies you learnt in therapy before going for a smoke.
That's ok! You're a human being. We all make mistakes and have slip ups. Relapses are key to relearning habits because you've recognised that this isn't the path you want to keep treading. Don't worry, re-wiring our brain doesn't happen in one day.
We'll recognise the signs that led up to the relapse (stress at work) and think of a plan to prevent this from happening again in the same way (remove the cigarettes from work, make a reminder to do meditation at lunch).
So each time we have a relapse, we’ll start to be aware of it sooner, then choose to utilise some of the strategies that have been giving us a good result (e.g. checking in with your Psychologist about your SMART goals). Each new time we recommit, we’ll stay engaged for longer and the next relapse will be shorter again.
The more we persevere with the strategies that have given us a good result, the easier they become, the more natural they start to feel, until eventually, they’re pretty much automatic. At that point, we will even be able to catch ourselves before we even relapse! That is, when not smoking will become the new habit and if we do smoke, that will start feeling unnatural.
So with these 5 steps, we can retrain our brain out of those unhelpful habits that were automatic and “normal”. By committing our effort over time, we will be guaranteed to relearn new more helpful habits that will get us closer to those big picture things that are important to us.
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