10 September 2018

Disrupting your environmental triggers to break a habit

Changing a habit can be easier when you change your environment first. Identifying the cue or trigger is often a first step to gaining control and helping you to change a habit that doesn’t serve you into one that does. Triggers may be a thought popping into your head, a feeling bubbling to the surface or something in your environment. For example, thinking you are never going to reach your ideal weight may trigger you to eat more chocolate; feeling you aren’t good enough may trigger you into a spiral of apathy, or seeing your office desk piled with work may be enough to bring on a sense of overwhelm.
Your environment is often something you can control and play around with and make an impact. Even just randomly changing something and disrupting your habitual pattern can start a cycle of improvement and enable new habits to form. Neuro linguistic programming calls this disruption a ‘pattern interrupt’, which can facilitate changes in your thought patterns and behaviours. Get a new screensaver, wear different clothes, drink coffee rather than tea, move your desk, work in a different room, change your office chair from a blue one to a red one, hang different pictures – even subtle changes can have a great effect.
It is thought that the chunking of tasks is an important component in how they become habits. Over time, the repetition of sequential tasks becomes a habit; changing a task therefore disrupts the sequence and can prevent a habit from being formed. Similarly, stopping the initiation of the first task in a sequence of a habit can prevent the follow through.
New research suggests that once started, the brain wants the whole routine to run. Neuroscientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found that certain neurons in the brain are responsible for marking the beginning and end of these chunked units of behaviour in a sequenced habit. These neurons in the striatum fire at the outset of a learned routine, go quiet while it is carried out, then fire again once the routine has ended. The researchers found that excitatory neurons produced what they called the bracketing pattern at the beginning and end while different neurons, interneurons, activate in the middle of the learned sequence1.
This task-bracketing appears to be important for starting a routine and then notifying the brain once it is complete. Once these patterns form it becomes difficult to break the habit. The brain considers the pattern valuable and worth keeping. The researchers suggest that the interneurons prevent the excitatory neurons from starting another routine until the current one is finished, implying that once started, the brain wants to complete the activation of the habit.
The neuroscientific evidence therefore implies that habits consist of two phases; initiation and routine.  If you want to change a habit, changing the trigger that causes the initiation will be the most powerful way, but if this is not possible, changing elements in the subsequent routine can also be effective.  For example, many people struggling with quitting smoking are now finding that, rather than trying to stop completely, smoking an e-cigarette instead changes the routine. It may not be the perfect solution, but it is a healthier alternative to the previous habit, and is a step towards kicking the habit altogether.  
1 Martiros, N., Burgess, A.A., Graybiel, A.M. (2018). Inversely active striatal projection neurons and interneurons selectively delimit useful behaviour sequences. Current Biology, 28 (4), 560-573.e5

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