We all have habits, some good and some bad. Some evoke emotions and feelings whilst others are simply actions. Take for example brushing your teeth and smoking. Brushing your teeth is simply an action which evokes little emotions whilst smoking acts on your emotions directly. Changing any habit is achievable but those which are emotional habits are harder. In this article we explain why that is but also describe what a habit looks like inside of you.

An action habit can be viewed as a performed action in response to a trigger. When I brush my teeth, the action of brushing our teeth is triggered by waking up and walking to the bathroom . An emotional habit is also a performed action in response to a trigger but the result of that performed action is the release of some chemicals in your brain which evokes an emotion. In the case of smoking, stress maybe the trigger, reaching and the act of smoking is the action whilst the smoking process causes the release of some chemicals which makes the person feel calmer. See figure below for a pictorial representation.

The trigger can be anything from stress to visual or audible cues as defined in the examples of brushing your teeth and smoking. The action performed exists in your body as a set of neurological connections (neural pathway) within your nervous system. When triggered, the nerves fire which tells the various parts of the body to perform the action. Now here is the interesting bit, the more the action is performed the stronger the connections become and the more refined the pathway becomes. In essence we become better at that habit because we are practising it. The opposite is also true. If we perform the action less, the connections will get weaker and the nervous system will favour that pathway less.

The chemical response leading to emotions explains why emotional habits are harder to change because the chemical itself is additive. The more we perform the habit, the greater the quantity of the chemical is released and so our nervous system gets used to that chemical quantity. When we try to change the habit, our nervous system craves that chemical and tries to alter our actions to get its fix! This explains, to some extent, why those who success in giving up smoking do put on weight in the process. The nervous craves that chemical / emotional fix and so the smoking high is substituted by the food high.

What we can conclude from the above is that a strategy to breaking an emotional habit could be:

  1. Try to stay away from any triggers to the habit
  2. Substitute the emotional response you would have got from the action with a constructive emotional action. This could be watching film, spending more time with friends, a little indulgence, etc. Locking yourself away will only make things more difficult.
  3. Take comfort in the knowledge that it will get easier the longer you persist because those neurological connections are going to get weaker the less you perform the habit, therefore the urge will get weaker too.