In order to successfully change habits, we have to know what we’re dealing with!
Habits are routine behaviours done on a regular basis. They are recurrent and often unconscious patterns of behaviour and are acquired through frequent repetition. Many of these are unconscious as we don’t even realise we are doing them.
Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines habits as:
1. an acquired mode of behaviour that has become nearly or completely involuntary
2. the prevailing disposition or character of a person’s thoughts and feelings
3. a settled tendency or usual manner of behaviour
4. a behaviour pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance
So we can see that habits define our character, our thoughts and feelings and our ‘usual’ behaviours. We can also see that habits are behaviours that are nearly or completely involuntary and because they are repeated frequently, we become ‘better’ at them (increased facility of performance).
A habit can also be thought of as a link between a stimulus and a response. It serves as a mental connection between a trigger thought or event (stimulus) and our response to that trigger (the response). Repeating this connection time and again forms a habit and affects all subsequent decisions and actions. If repeated often enough, this connection becomes near permanent unless we take conscious action to change it.
For example, a stimulus for overeating might be stress. The stress may be physical, emotional or mental and triggered by such things as a restricted diet, tiredness, an argument, a bad day at work or even negative thinking. A learned response for dealing with this stress may be eating. Over time, the bond may become so strong that our automatic or habitual response to stress is to eat. In psychology, this is known as classical conditioning, as demonstrated by Pavlov’s dogs. The dogs learnt to associate a tone with food and would salivate whenever they heard the tone whether there was food present or not.
In order to interrupt and eventually eliminate this negative behaviour, we must weaken the bond between the stimulus and the response, so it eventually it becomes ‘extinct.’ Hence, the technical name ‘extinction’ is rooted from this word.
Addictions vs. Habits
A habit can also be an addiction.
Some believe the term addiction should be reserved for describing a physical dependency on chemical substances such as alcohol and drugs.
Other addictions include a range of compulsive behaviours such as gambling, eating, shopping, playing videogames, work and internet usage. This type of addiction is typically described as ‘psychological addiction,’ a state that can also accompany physical addictions.
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