Healthy habits start in your head

Posted on 3 January 2019

January is the time many of us resolve to lead healthier lives but statistics show that by the second week of February, your list of New Year’s resolutions has gone up in a dejected puff of smoke. A clinical psychologist tells us exactly why new habits fall flat and how to make them stick.

What is a habit?

According to Prof Eddie Wolff, a clinical psychologist practising at Mediclinic Sandton, our pre-existing habits occur automatically and live in the basal ganglia – the part of your brain involved in coordination of movement.

Every habit, good or bad, consists of three components:

  1. A cue
  2. A routine (that follows the cue)
  3. A reward (for the routine)

An unhealthy eating habit, for example, is cued when you see food or feel hungry. “The routine is to eat food and if you’ve learned to eat unhealthy food, you will do that because that food is highly rewarding,” explains Prof Wolff.

Why your old habits stick

The basis for unhealthy behaviour are habits that were formed before the introduction of new, healthy habits. “The habit is an automatic behaviour that is mediated by the basal ganglia of your brain. It is a neuronal wired pattern of behaviour that is overlearned and occurs automatically,” says Prof Wolff.

He adds that your brain makes extensive use of habits to avoid ‘overuse’ to conduct daily behaviours. For instance, getting up in the morning, showering, getting dressed, driving – these are all habits. Behaviours that occur regularly are, in essence, habits. They all contain a cue, a routine, and a reward.

For most unhealthy eating behaviours, the reward is eating sugary or tasty foods. Other unhealthy ‘rewards’ include smoking and drinking alcohol which is particularly powerful as it relaxes you.

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A powerful reward

“The reward has to be powerful for the behaviour to be learned,” says Prof Wolff, who uses the example of diabetes. “Type 2 diabetes is a lifestyle disease – it has genetic components but it’s mostly a lifestyle disease that is exacerbated by unhealthy eating habits.” These include eating sweets, bread and other foods that are non-compatible with improving diabetes.

Prof Wolff explains that these are all eating habits that formed before the diabetes diagnosis and prior to the diabetic being instructed to change their eating habits.

“Because habits are such powerful, ingrained behaviours – these patients go back to their old eating styles and abandon the new lifestyle or prescribed diet that would help them control the disease,“ he says. “They fall back on old habits.”

If you are diabetic, it is very important for your medical professional to address your eating behaviour to re-establish a new routine following the cue of seeing food, feeling hungry or a set eating time. The old routine is to eat unhealthy foods that are high in perceived reward.

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How to cultivate a new habit

To create healthy eating habits, for example, you need to change or replace the unhealthy habit. Prof Wolff says there are many ways to do this but ultimately it involves creating a craving or need for healthy food so that when you feel the cue you follow a new routine.

  1. Associate unhealthy foods with very bad consequences associated with exacerbating Type 2 diabetes (e.g. peripheral neuropathy, blindness, etc.).
  2. Create a craving for healthy foods such as fruit, vegetables and small portions of protein by associating these foods with health and good taste. i.e. make healthy food highly desirable.
  3. Make sure your fridge or cupboards do not contain unhealthy foods.
  4. Change your routine to five small meals a day instead of one, two or three.

After you persist in this new routine for a while, it becomes automatic. “The brain needs to automate routine behaviours because it cannot survive doing everything consciously.”

He reiterates that the reward of the unhealthy habit needs to be made negative while the reward of the healthy habit has to be made very high by various manipulations of that reward.

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Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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