How to Break Bad Habits – Neuroscience Approach

  • 14 September, 2021
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  • By Aleksandra Cichuta

Automated thoughts, feelings, or behaviours are habits. And habits allow your brain to work on autopilot. How to break the bad ones?

Some habits you might think of as good, such as washing your hands after you visit the bathroom, brushing your teeth, or meditating daily.
Others you may consider bad, such as always being plugged into social media, negative self-talk, or snacking on junk food.
But in reality, most of your habits are neutral. Taking the same road to work is a habit, seating in the same spot in the class is a habit, fill your shopping cart with the same food at the same supermarket, and tune your ears into the same music, also is a habit.

Neuroscientists have found that all habits have a few defining features

1. Habits are learned over time by being repeated over and over, usually in pursuit of a goal.

2. Habits are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.

3. Habits are performed automatically, often with little conscious awareness and lack of goal.

4. Habits are persistent – once formed, they are very hard to break.

So how to break bad habits?

How You Form Your Habits

One of the most common and damaging habits is negative self-talk – the inner voice in your mind that repeats self-sabotaging commentary. These can be words/thoughts like:
• “I’m a failure; I’ll never succeed.”
• “I look bad in everything I wear.”
• “I’m a bad parent; I make so many mistakes.”

As you keep repeating a negative thought over and over, neurons in the prefrontal-striatal-midbrain circuit fire together over and over. The connections between them become stronger and stronger, until eventually the circuit wires together, storing the thought as a habit. Turning a thought into an enduring habit is brain plasticity in action.

Neuroscience on Breaking Bad Habits

How do you break a bad habit? Neuroscience researches provide two clues:

• Habits are triggered by a particular cue, situation, impulse, word, or event.
• Habits are persistent. Once formed, they are very hard to break.

Therefore, to break the habit you must:
• Learn to recognise the trigger for your bad habit. Observe when you “did it again” and what happened just a second before, what caused your habitual reaction. The more you observe to sooner you notice the same trigger wakes up your particular habit.
• Wire a new healthy or positive habit to override the bad-habit trigger. When you realise what triggers your bad habit, catch the moment whenever that trigger shows up and consciously respond to it, wiring in the new positive habit. The more you do it, the easier it gets until eventually, it becomes you.


Dr. Sarak McKay, Oxford University-educated neuroscientist, presenter of ABC Catalyst, director of The Neuroscience Academy, and author of The Women’s Brain Book.

How to Form a New Habit That Sticks, James Clear


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