- September 26, 2020
- Posted by: Dr. Nnamdi Elenwoke
- Category: Health
A habit (or wont as a humorous and formal term) is a routine of behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to occur subconsciously. Wikipedia
From Aristotle to Noam Chomsky, there is a big list of authors that have contributed to the study of Habit. Special thanks to their significant contributions we have a better understanding of how habit works. See complete list here. Research on Habit and how it works is still on-going.
Of these authors we focus on the Russian Physiologist Ivan Pavlov. He best known for his work in classical conditioning and habit formation. In 1904, this experiment below earned him a Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.
His dog normally salivates when it sees food (1). But not if he rings a bell (2). As he gave food to his dog, he rang the bell (3). After repeating this procedure a few times, he tried ringing the bell without providing food to the dog. On its own, an increase in salivation occurred (4).
The result of the experiment formed a new habit. The bell was the stimulus (explained later) for this new habit.
Components of Habit
From this experiment we can conclude that there are 3 components of habit formation.
Stimulus is something that evokes a reaction. It is also known as trigger or cue. The body receives information from stimulus using one or more of the 5 senses: Sight, Sound, Smell, Taste, and Touch. It sends this information to the Brain.
In the Brain there are connections called Synapses. These are just junctions between two nerve cells. There are billions of nerve cells in the brain. One of the theories is that synapses are activated when a new habit or memory is formed. Their activity goes down when a behavior is stopped. As you see they do not disappear.
This is why a Psychiatrist friend of mine said that a thief that converts to a religious leader after decades of robbery still has traces of robbery in his brain.
The brain then directs the muscles. These will produce the Action. When this action is done repeatedly and effortlessly it becomes a habit.
Habits stick because they produce a positive reward. With repetition and consistency it becomes an unconscious act or behaviour. According to Aristotle: We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.
To stop any habit you have to identify these factors especially the stimulus and make them difficult or unpleasant. It sounds simple but sometimes it can be really complicated.
You form a habit on top of another one. There is space in your brain to form as much habits as you want. It becomes strenuous but not imposible with age.
There are habits easy to form like using umbrella in the rain. Others are hard like operating on the brain. Also there are habits easy to stop, others are hard to stop. Virtually no habit is impossible to stop/start if you follow the Steps mentioned below.
These are 3 steps that will help you stop or start any habit:
Step #1: Burning Desire
I was a chain smoker a patient told me. One day I heard my voice on a Whatsapp audio message I sent to my daughter. I noticed I was panting while talking! That was the moment I realised what smoking has done to me. I developed a burning desire to quit. It’s 8 years now and I have not smoked again.
Desire is a strong wishing for something to happen. It is the most important of the rest. It is made stronger by a strong reason to change. It is not sufficient to say, I want to change. It should be accompanied by strong belief.
Sometimes our brain controls us but we can control our brain. Desire is what makes you control your brain.
Doctors find it difficult to treat alcoholic patients because the patients lack desire and don’t accept they need help (discussed in Step #3).
Burning desire coupled with believe change is possible is the golden rule of habit change.
Some people stop a habit when they have had a bad experience like catastrophe or health challenges. However you are not going to wait for a black swan event before you decide to change. You want to change now.
Just start doing it today. Do not waste time thinking. Time will never be ‘just right.’ Most habits stop when you decide to stop. And this leads us to Step 2. What does Nike say?
Step #2: Just do it
In 711 AD Muslim soldiers arrived the Iberian Peninsula. Umayyad Commander Tariq bin Ziyad ordered his ships to be burned so that his men would have to conquer or die. The Spanish commander, Hernán Cortés did same during the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1519 AD. And do you know what? They conquered.
There is no going back to the old habit, burn your ships.
You can stop most habits depending on your willpower. Do you come late to meetings? Are you addicted to social media? Do you spend to the limit on credit cards? JUST STOP NOW!
The intrinsic ability to delay gratification is a powerful way of stoping or starting a habit. This makes a big difference why some people are successful. Just like the muscle, the brain and of course willpower gets stronger the more you use it.
If you can’t stop or even start a particular habit it means you need a better knowledge of the system. Better knowledge involves understanding the habit and how it works.
It is very important to identify the triggers. Make them unpleasant and difficult to achieve while you do the opposite to the new habit. As mentioned earlier, you don’t eliminate a bad habit, you replace it.
A good way to stoping a habit is by starting small. Start small – Think big. Start to replace the habit now, and work with whatever you have right now, and better tools will be found as you go along.
Initially it may not be easy but if you persist you will win. When mastery is attained there is no going back. If you are facing great difficulties then move to step 3.
Step #3: Seek help
Deposed King Sancho I of Leon (932-966) travelled south to Cordoba, present day Spain for obesity treatment. Before then he was so fat that he couldn’t ride a horse. The Jewish doctor Hasdai ibn Shaprut sewed his mouth and gave him infusions from a straw. After 40 days he lost half his weight. Sancho I would later reclaim the throne in 960.
In 2007, researchers Christakis & Fowler published their results from the Framingham Heart Study. After following 12,067 people for over 32 years they found that a person’s chances of becoming obese increased by 57% if he or she had a friend who became obese in a given interval.
You must have heard that you are who you surround yourself with. The effect of environment on habit cannot be understated. It may be changing neighbourhood or work, finding a mentor/coach or changing who you talk with everyday.
Speaking of mentor, (s)he should be a respectable person that is where you want to go. Someone or people that have done what you want to do. You do not want a mentor/coach that is not easily accessible or untrustworthy.
Some great websites are:
Talk to a doctor. We covered this here. There are habit changes that require special treatment like in the case of opiods adiction.
When many people addicted to opioids like heroin first quit, they undergo withdrawal symptoms (pain, diarrhoea, nausea, and vomiting), which may be severe. This needs help from health professionals. Other opioids (Methadone, Buprenorphine etc) can be helpful in detoxification stage to ease craving and other physical symptoms that can often prompt a person to relapse.
Your doctor will advise if surgery is needed. Even after bariatric surgery you still have to change your food habits. You have to work on yourself more than anything else.
Neurosurgeons have used deep brain stimulation in eating problems (anorexia nervosa, excessive obesity), obsessive-compulsive disorders, tremor (Parkinson disease, Essential Tremor) etc. Research is on-going.
Surgery is usually the last option when most things have been tried without success.
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Always remember what Henry Ford said: Whether you think you can, or think you can’t… you are right. Just change that habit now!