Habits are meant to help us but they can also make dealing with feelings more difficult

Our brain developed habits to help us survive, but they can also get in the way of managing our feelings in a productive way. Understanding how our habits are formed is the first step towards devising better ones.

Every morning I take my two dogs to the closest park to where I live. Once I get there, I do one complete, counter-clockwise walk around the park. I’ve never walked the opposite direction.

Our brain loves habits and routines. Think about your day so far, how many activities have you completed that you never really thought about? Habits are helpful because they conserve energy and make life smoother. Imagine if you had to think about every single action and decision you made. Life would go so much slower and your brain would quickly tire from having to be active all of the time. Habits exist to help us, and many times they do, but their automatic nature also means that they can lead us to make unhelpful decisions without ever noticing them. Understanding how habits form and how our reactions to our feelings can become habitual is an important part to better managing our mental health.

Habits form in our brain through a reward-based learning system. When something happens (a trigger), our body reacts (we do something, an action), and there is an outcome. If the outcome is desirable then our brain will remember that the action we took was the "right one" for that trigger and will remember to do so again. If, on the other hand, the outcome is unpleasant, then our brain will probably not try that again in the future. Each time we deal with these triggers and our action proves to be helpful, we reinforce this action and over time, it will become habitual and you won’t even notice the decision.

The problem is that our brain sometimes has a different agenda to the one we do. A desirable outcome for our brain might not, actually, be desirable for us in the long run. Maybe this is best illustrated in an example, one that i'm experiencing right at this moment:

Trigger: I am writing and feel uncomfortable because I don't know how to write a good article

Action: I check Twitter to see if anything interesting is happening

Outcome: I'm distracted and no longer feel uncomfortable

The outcome here is positive, for my brain, but not for this post that i'm writing. I don't feel uncomfortable, because i'm distracted, but i'm no where closer to finishing my article which is something I actually want (and have to) do. Unfortunately, my brain quickly takes over and I check Twitter without ever making the decision to do so. My reaction becomes habitual and I have to go to great lengths to stay focused.

Example #2:

Trigger: I feel bored and down

Action: I go to the kitchen in search for something to eat

Outcome: I find something to eat and, for a while, have something to do

From the brain's perspective the outcome was positive but for me, in the long run, it probably wasn't very good.

Last example:

Trigger: I feel anxious

Action: I worry and make a plan

Outcome: I have a plan of action to avoid the uncertainty causing my anxiety

In this case, the outcome was good. But what if there wasn't a plan that could deal with whatever was causing my anxiety? Instead of feeling satisfied with my plan, I would feel more anxious and then worry more and then more anxiety and so on. The loop will only intensify until worrying itself becomes something we do out of habit, which is a situation where a lot of us find ourselves.

Our brain formed habits to help us survive, but that doesn’t mean we can let them run on autopilot. Part of feeling one's feelings is about noticing what we are feeling and how we automatically react to them. Once a coping strategy, like worrying or distraction or eating has become ingrained it can be hard to change, but by no means is it impossible. Simply by becoming aware of how habits are formed and how our brain uses them we can slowly take back control. Check your habits, how do you deal with anxiety? How do you deal with uncertainty? Boredom? Instead of beating yourself up for not finishing your work, what feeling is blocking you? Can you develop a new, better response to it than procrastinating?

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