Trying to Break a Bad Habit? Here’s How

by Christina Sarich, Staff Writer, Waking Times

“The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.” – Albert Camus in The Plague

That bad habit you have been trying to break is likely causing you consternation for more reasons than you think. Perhaps you’ve sworn to yourself that you would stop being late for appointments, or binge eating ice cream at 3 in the morning, but you can’t seem to change. It is likely due to a delicate dance going on between your neuronal synapses. There is a way to re-wire them, in effect, but it helps to understand what caused your brain to develop that habit to begin with.

Any action you take develops into the opportunity to repeat itself almost robot-like via your neurochemistry. Neuronal synapses are reinforced by their use through the production of acetylcholine. When we stop doing a particular thing, those neuronal pathways shrink, with conductive layers actually dissolving, so that new pathways can be formed.

What can make this process a little more challenging is when someone experiences a traumatic event. This causes a permanent hypersensitive pathway to be created – using a different chemical that does not dissolve so easily.

The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) says that over 40 million people in the US over the age of 18 suffer from some anxiety-related disorder, and those are just the people who have been diagnosed or whose symptoms fit into a pre-described condition. Millions more go undiagnosed. Arguably, these are people with a habitual mental pattern that can be reconfigured.

Research published in the journal Neuron details how N-methyl-D-aspartate (NMDA) receptors on dopamine neurons in the brain’s basal ganglia are essential to the formation of habits. These receptors act like gateways to the brain cells, letting in electrically charged ions to increase the activity and communication of neurons.

Neuroscientist Dr. Lei Phillip Wang describes these cells like a computer’s central processing unit:

“The NMDA receptor is a commander, which is why it’s called a master switch for brain cell connectivity.”

MIT scientists have also identified a region of the brain that can switch between old and new habits. This means that a habit which becomes ‘unconscious’ and therefore hard to break, is an old, outdated assumption.

Unconsciousness and Bad Habits

The Yoga Sutras tell us, “. . .instinct is a trace of an old experience that has been repeated many times and the impressions have sunk down to the bottom of the mental lake. Although they go down, they aren’t completely erased. Don’t think you ever forget anything. All experiences are stored in the chittam; and, when the proper atmosphere is created, they come to the surface again. When we do something several times it forms a habit. Continue with that habit for a long time, and it becomes your character. Continue with that character and eventually, perhaps in another life, it comes up as instinct.”

When we continue to behave in ways that don’t serve us, ways that we consciously want to change, but feel an incredible resistance to undo, the action is usually based in the unconscious mind. It was likely a behavior formed in order to protect us emotionally from some frightening or painful experience, or, it simply paid off in some way that we don’t consciously acknowledge.

When you pick up the phone out of guilt to talk to someone who always brings you down, for example, that emotional response pays some dividend to you, even if you don’t consciously realize it, and you outwardly despise the caller. Until you uncover the true motive for keeping yourself entangled in the conversation with that person, you won’t be able to undo it. Staying ‘unconscious’ simply allows you to continue to ‘benefit’ from the exchange even if you bemoan it consciously.

For example, if your best friend is constantly asking you for a loan, but never pays you back, and instead uses your money to buy cigarettes or go on lavish vacations when they can’t pay their rent, and you feel annoyed by that behavior, do you perhaps get a thrill from ‘saving’ someone from their own bad habits. Do you feel more ‘righteous’ because you handle your money or your life better? Do you get a little egoic high from being ‘better’ than they are? These are subconscious ticks that could be keeping this bad habit of lending out money to people who are irresponsible going – and though you complain about it, you subconsciously get a big thrill out of the action!

This is just one example of many possible behaviors, and we all have these ‘unsavory’ programs, but while we are complaining about the realities of life, we often don’t realize we have more control over the habits that create our experiences than one might imagine…




One thought on “Trying to Break a Bad Habit? Here’s How

  1. Reblogged this on Cheal Out and commented:
    This article seems so significant to me this morning. I have just logged-on to my computer, around two hours later in the day than I normally would, and I am writing without the distraction of music or television. I promised myself yesterday that I would stop turning on the computer/television first thing each day and would instead try and devote my time to…well, anything else.
    I have so many hobbies, that’s what first attracted me to this article, it seemed to be aimed at people, like myself, who resent the idea that each of us is on this earth to behave one way or, even worse, to do one thing. I find myself drawn to doing things that allow me to relax, because I spend so much of my life experiencing anxiety, however a lot of those things, like watching the television or spending hours trawling my Facebook dashboard, actually lead to an increase in my sense of frustration, guilt and impotence (three emotions that definitely fuel my anxiety, if not cause it); they are habits, not hobbies.
    Before reading the longer article from which this blog post was derived, I had already followed the process of listing five of my undesirable habits and then listing five alternative, productive hobbies that I can indulge in when the temptation to do something undesirable had grown too strong. For me, this means things like reading a good old fashioned paper book sometimes, instead of devoting all my time to reading things online, which is a subtle but noticeably different experience.
    For anyone unsure of whether they can break a habit that they consider undesirable I urge you to work from the information given; so far, I am barely a few days into my efforts to replace my ‘bad’ habits with ‘good’ ones, but I am feeling optimistic and I believe I have science on my side.


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