I am not a doctor, a psychiatrist, or a scientist; nor do I hold a PhD. of any kind. This post is simply my theory on why habits are so hard to break. I understand there can be a long list of issues influencing the creation of a habit or addiction that must be addressed, however, I am simply giving focus to one possible theory to the inherent difficulty of habit breaking. Hopefully, a person with the ability to study this theory will be interested enough to devote resources to discovering if indeed I may be correct.
Everyone has attempted to break habits, usually with disastrous results. They start full of resolve to make it the time their habit will be broken. Information and ideas are gathered to help with the chain breaking, but inevitably, something happens in the quest that brings the journey to a screeching halt and the habit successfully defending itself to continue on alive.
I can list several habits I’ve tried to break that were unsuccessful: smoking (though finally, by the grace of God, I’ve been free 14 years now), eating junk food, staying up late, drinking coffee…the list could go on.
Why is it so hard to break a habit?
As shown in my previous blog post, My Bad Habit, one definition of a habit is a learned pattern or practice that over time has become involuntary.
In the human body there are two systems controlling the processes inside. There are the voluntary processes such as walking, talking, moving limbs, etc. which we have to tell our body to do. The body will not walk unless there is a conscious thought to do it. The other system is the involuntary nervous system. This system allows for those processes that sustain life to operate without the need for thought. Heart pumping blood, breathing, digesting food, and filtering waste are just some of the many processes in our body we do not need to consciously think about it for them to work.
Thank God for that.
Habits start out as voluntary processes we decide to act on. We tell our brains, because of environmental stimuli or other events happening around us, to make our bodies complete a certain task. This is not when a habit is formed, it is when a process is completed many times that it becomes ingrained in our minds to the point it is no longer a voluntary issue we need to think about. Our minds notice we are doing a process over and over, and so to conserve resources, our brains attach those repetitive items to our involuntary mind allowing the diversion of resources away from the effort to think about doing them into other voluntary avenues.
Because these habits are now in the involuntary processes that we no longer have to think about, this hampers our efforts to break the chain. Have you ever tried to hold your breath long enough to pass out? It doesn’t take long to find out it is impossible to do since your body will force you to take a breath. The body does this because it is an involuntary action keeping it alive. Can the heart be stopped simply by willing it to be? No. Our body will ignore your efforts because it is working on another system. Similarly, habits also want to stay alive because of their now involuntary nature.
As an example, I can’t leave the bathroom unless I wash my hands because my brain yells at me it must be done or something terrible will happen. My brain is so hardwired to wash hands after using the bathroom that I don’t have to think about the steps to wash, my body just does it. The body’s survival depends on the process, the habit, of washing hands to be completed. Not because there is some instinctive knowledge of germs, but there has been an event, repeated over and over a thousand times, that must occur or the brain will go haywire.
Even habits not good for the body become essential to survival when part of the involuntary system. A drug addict’s withdrawal is essentially the brain demanding a process be completed to stay alive. I understand there can be many issues at play where addictions are concerned, but to understand the body’s reasoning for what it is doing to the individual should not be ignored. I don’t know if this area has been studied in such a way as to interpret the body’s reaction as being part of the involuntary nervous system, though I believe this may be an interesting avenue to explore within the context of addictions, habits, and even Obsessive Compulsive Disorders.
So how is an involuntary action stopped. Our involuntary processes can only be stopped by a catastrophic change to their environment. Since my theory suggests habits become associated with the same system, we must introduce big enough changes to our environment that will interrupt the way a habit is processed in the brain resulting in what was involuntary becoming a voluntary thought, thus allowing a person to break the habit more easily.
Sometimes by simply changing our way of thinking is enough to make the change. Other times more forceful avenues must be used such as physical removal of the corresponding stimuli. For example, an individual wanting to increase their activity level may remove the television so they no longer can veg out on the couch. Another example would be a smoker trying to quit will do away with the cigarettes and stop taking their breaks in the smoking area. It is by rendering the involuntary action obsolete that a different voluntary one can be achieved allowing for the successful break of a habit.
The brain is a wondrous and complex organ of the body that can influence our actions more than science has yet to understand. My theory on the difficulty of breaking habits may or may not be correct, however I do think it may be worth studying the possibility of the mind turning voluntary, repetitive processes into part of the involuntary nervous system. This would certainly go a long way to explaining how we have such hard times breaking habits.
How have you been able to break your habits? Write it in the comments below.