Step 5 Working the Habit Formula
The goal of this program is to help you manage your habits. As you consider what habits you have, you will want to extinguish some. You may want to add different habits in their place. Replacing habits that you wish to terminate with a better choice, is by far the best approach. If you want to stop over-eating sugar enriched foods, then the best thing to do is to replace them with a healthier alternative. There are other things you could do as well. We want to look at how habits work so we can effectively make the changes we desire.
To change our habits, we must consider the three parts of the habit formula
The Habit Formula
For some time, it has been taught that our behavior is due to a stimulus which then elicits a response that results in a reward.
1. There is a cue, (trigger) that tells your brain to go into automatic mode and which habit to use
2. There is the routine, (behavior) which can be physical or mental or emotional
3. There is a reward, (benefit) which helps your brain figure out if this particular loop is worth remembering for the future. If it is, you will keep repeating it and over time, this loop becomes more and more automatic.
The trouble comes in when the cue elicits an urge that is so strong we cannot ignore it and even when we know better, we go ahead with the behavior. We can’t seem to break the habit. The good news is that we do not have to be slaves to our habits or cravings. Habits and even addictions can be extinguished, ignored, obeyed or replaced. We do this by playing with the three components.
There are various ways to describe this phenomenon that I call the “Habit Formula.”
The Habit Formula is basically:
• Cue or Stimulus
• Behavior or Response
• Reward or Gain (Benefit)
The following are some ways of dealing with habits and cravings
1. Try Changing the Cue (Trigger)
A cue or trigger is what gets us going with our habit. It can be in our environment, our body or in our mind. It could be something we see, hear, smell or feel; something we sense or something we perceive or think. Whatever it is, it causes a reaction or behavior and seeks a reward or end result. There are different ways we can affect the cue in order to change our behavior.
2. Deny the legitimacy of the cue
For the purposes of this step, we will consider how one should sometimes deny the legitimacy of the cue. For, example with addictions, many times the cue is false even though it feels so real. I call this a “false alarm due to faulty wiring.” This is a brain thing. Something comes into our perception and the striatum starts pumping dopamine giving us the excitation or agitation that says, “I have to have it.” It is a false alarm or faulty wiring because there is no legitimate reason we cannot say, “No, I do not have to have it!” But our brain has made it such an imperative based on some sort of belief that is terrorizing. We feel like we are going to die if we do not indulge. Now, most of us have never felt that strongly simply because we automatically go into our habit. But when we first start to resist and say “no” our brain will continue pumping dopamine thus fighting us, making us feel we must do it. Remember the brain’s job is to protect us and it feels that we are in imminent danger because of the false alarm. It is like standing in front of a coming truck. You don’t resist the urge to move. You move out of the way.
However in most of our habits and addictions, here is the ironic thing. This imperative is based on a lie! We are not going to die! We are not in trouble. We are not going to fall apart if we ignore the urge. It is a lie. The brain is giving you a faulty signal! No different than you thinking there was a monster in the basement when you were a child! The alarm goes off. It seems like a real danger. It feels like panic and you feel the urge to react. It is as if your hand is approaching a hot stove. YOU MUST move your hand. However, in this case, THE STOVE IS COLD! So, when the bogus cue emerges we need to divert our attention to something else.
3. Change any or all three, CUE, BEHAVIOR, and REWARD
It is easier than you think! (No really!)
There are 5 steps that you can use to change the dynamics of a habit.
A. Recognize the CUE (sensation)
Most urges are accompanied by a physical sensation. It helps to be aware of these and recognize them. So, go through this mental exercise and sense it in your body – Where is it? What shape and size? Is it hot or cold? Does it tingle or vibrate? Is it dull or sharp? This is the root of emotion. The original meaning of emotion was “to move”. Emotions are really sensations that get us to move, it was later that we began to call these sensations, “feelings.”
You need to recognize this trigger in your body. You cannot ignore it–chances are that it has already tricked you into action. You want to identify it NOW (first) so you can choose NOT to react to it. This is one of our basic principles in Emotional Resilience that we call, “Emotional Recognition!”
B. Change the meaning of the CUE by renaming it as a false alarm
You need to say to yourself, “This is not real! It is a false alarm!” This is harder than you think. We are wired to react to an internal alarm. But remember, it really is faulty wiring! We are only acknowledging what our prefrontal cortex should have done in the first place. The pre-frontal cortex should have canceled it–but it did not get a chance. Over time the signals between the amygdala and cortex have become weakened. The good news is that you can correct that. By ignoring the alarm now, you are retraining your brain to treat this false alarm as an actual false alarm. You do this by calming down and taking a deep breath or two. You are going from the sympathetic nervous system (gas pedal) to parasympathetic nervous system (the brakes). There are many different ways to calm oneself.
· Systematic relaxing (see MindSkills)
· Slowly breathe out and in three times deep breaths (count of 5 in 5 out)
· Go to an imaginary peaceful place that you have practiced with and relax
· Think of a time of appreciation with someone
· Focus on the presence of God and His love for you – Give it to Him
C. Change the BEHAVIOR by affirming that you do not have to obey the false alarm
This is important. You need to say out loud, “I do not have to obey you! You are a false alarm!” Not only does this help you think rationally—it gets busy training the prefrontal cortex while separating you from the cue. This buys precious time during those reactionary milliseconds after the alarm goes off!
Other things you can say:
· “I am not going to die if I ignore this!”
· “I have done this before (if you have) and can do it now!” (If you haven’t then say, “Others have ignored this, so can I!”)
· “I don’t want to be that person!”
D. Change the BEHAVIOR by distracting yourself – Ride the wave
The power of an urge or craving is hard to ignore, especially when you feel the urge is serious and you must obey it. So now that you know that the urge is a false alarm, even though it feels strong, you can give yourself permission to ignore it. Unfortunately, most people are not successful. Why? Because when we focus on “not thinking about something” we only increase our ability to think about it. Add to this the fact that we can also develop a “resistance fatigue” which weakens our resolve, and we give in! We see this in studies on willpower. Our willpower is far less at night when we are tired and have resisted temptation all day. Of course, this is often when we need it the most.
So how do you “ignore” or “resist” this strong craving? You do it by focusing on something else. You need to distract yourself. It is like riding a wave. Once you are on the wave you don’t focus on the wave anymore. You focus on the shore and “ride the wave.” That big wave soon dissipates onto the shore. This is how your urge will act. Twenty minutes is about the length of time an average urge lasts. You can ignore it by distracting yourself on something you like for that long. Chances are after a few minutes of distraction you will forget all about it.
The distracting of yourself, however, MUST be deliberate. Get something that excites you. Perhaps a book you have been wanting to read or some favorite music. Get up and move around. Jump into a hobby, tend a garden, take a walk! The opportunities are endless. And don’t forget outside support! Call a friend and talk. Going to a support meeting is always a good idea.
E. Relive™ – Change the REWARD by visualization of better behavior and outcome
When you succeed you should immediately replay what just happened in your mind. Then visualize how good it felt to achieve your goal! Feel it in your body. Let a rewarding excitement wash over you. Do it again a couple hours later. Why? Because you want to retrain your brain not to react negatively to that cue again. Learning comes from experience. You want to tell the brain that there is a new satisfying reward if we continue this new behavior. Why should you succeed only once? When you relive what you just did through visualization, it is as if you actually just did it again. The more sensory-rich your visualization is the more the brain takes it in as if it were real. Why not get three or four experiences out of your one success? It will help you learn this new way of behaving to the cue. With time the old response to the cue will be ignored.
By working with the cue, behavior and reward you will see your new habit challenge become a reality.