Can Mindfulness Help Break Bad Habits?

I marvel at the human brain’s capacity to function on autopilot, navigating hundreds or thousands of routines with no (or minimal) conscious thought. The first few times we perform a new task – like tying our shoes – it’s a bit effortful. But once we’ve mastered a skill, we can execute it while thinking about other things.

Habits largely live in the realm of the unconscious. We encounter a trigger that sets forth a behavioral routine which results in some form of reward. The reward generally draws us toward something pleasant or away from something unpleasant/harmful.

See donuts.
Eat donuts.
Savor the delicious flavor and survive.

Hear rattling sound in forest.
Move away from sound with all due haste.
Avoid poisonous snake bite and survive.

We find this survivalist wiring in all sentient life. The degree to which we’re drawn to a particular behavior in response to a cue or trigger lies in the reward value that we’ve assigned to it. The higher the reward, the easier it is to trigger the behavior.

So, how do we get stuck in bad habits?

If we’re uncomfortably and unhealthfully overweight, we know we should eat less and focus on healthier food choices, but we can’t seem to avoid the allure of salts, sugars, and fats. If we smoke cigarettes, we’ve been bombarded with all kinds of messaging about how bad it is for us (and may even experience life-threatening symptoms), but we still light up. A similar logic goes along with alcohol and drug addiction. Our higher order thinking may know that our behavior is not life sustaining, but we have real difficulty changing it.

Dr. Judson Brewer, MD, PhD has devoted his life’s work to helping people break the cycle of addiction. He tells us that willpower and self-discipline alone are not sufficient to overcome this seemingly intractable foe. They rely upon the faculties of the newest part of our brains – the prefrontal cortex – to exercise control. Regrettably, that’s the first part of our brains to go off-line when we are under stress, which is when bad habits are most likely to engage. They spring forth from ye olde reward-based learning that triggers behavior based on a cue in anticipation of a reward.

CUE: I feel anxious, upset, bored…
BEHAVIOR: I eat chocolate, light up a smoke, down a drink, take a pill…
REWARD: I avoid having to feel anxious, upset, bored… in this moment

Dr. Charles Duhigg served up the Golden Rule of Habit Change to address this circumstance: Keep an old cue, deliver an old reward, but insert a new behavior. For example, go for a brisk walk in nature the next time you feel anxious, bored, upset… While that’s a healthier alternative to overeating, smoking, or substance abuse, it keeps the old habit loop intact, making it easy to revert to the old behavior. Besides, do we really think a habit loop designed to avoid feelings is a good thing?

As a long time meditator, Dr. Brewer wondered to what extent the practice of mindfulness might benefit those struggling with addiction. He identified several factors favorable to its use:

  • Mindfulness takes behaviors that have been unconscious and brings them into awareness with compassion and without judgment. It creates the space for making different choices.
  • Mindfulness recognizes that physical sensations, mental states, and feelings rise and fall away. Whatever impulse drives undesirable behavior, it’ll go away.
  • Mindfulness brings curiosity to impulses and reward systems. Impulses feel less compelling when examined from an interested but dispassionate stance. Rewards may not be so rewarding when taking a longer view. (“Mmm. The chocolate tasted good for the few minutes that it took to eat it. But then I felt bloated and guilty. It also disrupted my sleep, and I felt lousy the next day.”) If you reset the reward value, the habit loop may die on the vine.

Dr. Brewer tested his theory with smokers who were highly motivated to quit. Half of the group got the prevailing gold standard treatment protocol for quitting smoking; the other half received mindfulness training along with a related app for their Smartphones. The mindfulness group demonstrated a success rate 5x that of the gold standard group! He applied the technique to overeating and witnessed a 40% reduction in craving-related eating.

Want to learn more? Read my next post or watch Judson Brewer’s TED Talk entitled A simple way to break a bad habit.