– Carrie Wilkens, Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change
Changing behavior requires self-awareness. Changing a well-worn habit in particular requires that you move it from “automatic” to “conscious” so that you can make other behavioral choices. For example, if you don’t even notice that you are reaching for a cigarette as you get into your car, how are you ever going to decide to resist lighting it up?
Habits are influenced by your environment and are set off by environmental cues, sometimes called triggers. Triggers are the people, situations, locations and emotions associated with any behavior you are trying to change. When it comes to substance use, triggers are the environmental variables that provoke “cravings” or the desire to use or engage in the habit. Neuroscientists have studied the trigger effect in the brain—how an encounter with drug paraphernalia or the smell of a long-frequented pub lights up the part of the brain responsible for emotion and instinct, the “feel good” parts of the brain. As you encounter these cues in your daily life, it’s likely that you are on autopilot and don’t even notice how they are linked to your decision to engage in your habit. Scientists have also found that once these habits are engaged, the brain has a difficult time considering the consequences and risks associated with the behavior. In other words, once you are in your car, smoking the cigarette, it’s not likely that you will have the wherewithal to say “this is really bad for my health, I’m going to throw this cigarette and the rest of the pack away right now.”
If you are wanting to change a habit, it is important to start with identifying the cues/triggers (both internal and external) that lead up to the decision to engage in the behavior.
- What are the usual times of day/night associated with this behavior?
- What are you doing?
- What are you feeling?
- What are you thinking?
- Who are you with?
- Where are you?
The good news is that by understanding these triggers you can go about altering your
environment in order to support change. In addition, when you replace old behaviors with more positive actions, new neural pathways are forged. Thankfully, triggers tend to lose their strength over time as the old pathways power down from disuse.
- Address your environment: You can choose to be one place or another. You can avoid certain places or certain people. You can consciously alter things in your environment to make it safer (remove paraphernalia or any other visual cues to use).
- Be conscious! Much of daily life is out of our control but we can make conscious decisions about some variables and doing so can make a big difference. Who are you spending time with? Where are you hanging out? How are you responding to certain emotional states?
- Pay special attention to the internal triggers (the feelings and the thoughts). Do you need to get specific help with anxiety? How can you go about tending to your loneliness? Fatigue? Anger?
- Be proactive and deliberate. As you try to resist old behaviors, be creative and engage in life-enhancing alternatives so that you don’t feel deprived.
- Ask for help. Changing your relationship to behavioral habits often involves including other people. Let people know what you are trying to do so that they don’t accidentally contribute to your being exposed to your triggers.
Remember, making changes in behavior require new learning. No one is an A student over night. Be patient with yourself as you navigate your day to day and encounter triggers and possibly the desire to engage in your habit. By shifting out of “automatic” and trying to be aware of your triggers you will have a much greater chance of changing your behavior and patterns. Conscious decision making leads to change!
Dr. Wilkens is a Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC which she co-founded with Dr. Jeffrey Foote. She specializes in motivational treatments and group psychotherapy, and has worked with traumatized populations in both individual and group modalities.