A large part of my job as a therapist is to help people become aware that their negative thoughts and behaviours are habits, learned over time through repetition. I use the analogy that if I was to lift a 2kg weight with my right hand 50 times a day over a period of say one month, whether I want it or not, I am going to end up with a huge right bicep! Why would I do that I ask myself.
Sadly most of us practice negative thoughts about ourselves, our performance, our looks and people and events around us, day in and day out. We do this quite unconsciously, not realising that we are developing neural pathways in our brain and forming habitual negative thinking patterns. Once a neural pathway has been formed and reinforced over time, we do not have to expend much neural activity to have an automatic response, so a habit is effortless, if you like.
Unfortunately negative thinking habits are also linked to negative emotions (endocrine system secretions of stress hormones) and strong negative emotions are more likely to reinforce these thinking habits and subsequent behaviour.
For example, if we experience someone cutting us off on the freeway and we then tell ourselves we could have been killed, that they are an idiot, they should not be allowed to drive and that the freeway is not a safe place to drive, we are going to experience a “stress response”. If that experience is repeated or if we continue to expect the worst on the freeway and revisiting those negative angry thoughts about negligent drivers, we will soon find that we automatically feel apprehensive about driving on the freeway and feel automatically angry when another driver transgresses in even a minor way.
Most of the people I counsel for road rage have been practicing being angry for a long time. However, helping someone understand that their response is simply the result of a habit, formed over time can be useful in convincing them that they can unlearn that response in the same way they learned it. With practice!
It is possible to become a calm driver, through consciously responding in a rational manner and focusing on the positives. For example, when we see someone speeding and weaving in and out of traffic, we can tell ourselves that person may be on an emergency dash to the hospital to visit a dying relative, or they may have a child on the back seat in need of medical attention. In other words, it has nothing to do with us. We do not have to take it personally and respond angrily. We can change our emotion to one of compassion or concern instead of anger. Of course we do need to drive defensively and courteously, however, other people’s behaviour is out of our control in most cases. Staying calm and alert will serve us best when driving.
The following excerpt from Emily vanSonnenberg’s article in Positive Psychology News Daily highlights the ability to change unhealthy, negative habits by practicing new positive thoughts and behaviours.
An abundance of potential habits exist which research shows can foster our well-being and ability to flourish. If you want to increase your well-being–feel more positive emotions, more meaning, closer relationships, and a greater sense of accomplishment, consider implementing these positive activities (or come up with your own) every day to form habits that contribute to well-being.
- Keep a Gratitude Journal at night.
- Practice random acts of kindness to strangers.
- Engage in a novel activity with your partner each week and talk about the new experience together.
- Learn a new word.
- Begin a new hobby (or re-awaken one you enjoyed as a kid)
How to Break a Bad Habit
If you want to break a bad habit, here is one method that is often successful:
- Identify a positive habit and congruent behaviour you would like to adopt.
- Identify the habit you want to break.
- Recognise the sensory impulse(s) you experience in your body or other stimuli that occur just before you usually act on the negative habit.
- Instead of acting on the negative impulse, use your conscious attention to re-focus your thoughts and behaviours on the new and positive habit you identified in Step 1.
- Substitute the new behaviour that is congruent with the positive habit you want to form for the behaviours of the negative habit.
Continue Steps 4 and 5 for at least 66 days. Notice that you are using the triggers from the old habit to reinforce your practice of the new habit.
Living Automatically, by Choice
All in all, if you want to form a new habit, you can! Acquiring a new habit tends to take just over two months until it is automatically cemented into your brain’s neural pathways. Use the willpower inside yourself to commit to repeating the behaviour so that you can form a new and positive habit. Sooner than you may anticipate, you will no longer need to think about doing the behaviour. It will become automatic.
You can develop good or bad habits. Take your pick. If you consciously behave the way you want to behave for only a few months, it grows markedly easier, as you adopt new positive habits that contribute to well-being. The effects that positive habits can have on your well-being are nothing short of life-changing, and this, is within your control.
“We are what we repeatedly do; excellence then is not an act, but a habit.” -Aristotle