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General interest items edited by Janice Flahiff

Breaking Bad Habits – NIH News in Health, January 2012

Breaking Bad Habits – NIH News in Health, January 2012

 Cartoon of a man bypassing cupcakes and carrying a shopping basket filled with produce.

From the article

If you know something’s bad for you, why can’t you just stop? About 70% of smokers say they would like to quit. Drug and alcohol abusers struggle to give up addictions that hurt their bodies and tear apart families and friendships. And many of us have unhealthy excess weight that we could lose if only we would eat right and exercise more. So why don’t we do it?

NIH-funded scientists have been searching for answers. They’ve studied what happens in our brains as habits form. They’ve found clues to why bad habits, once established, are so difficult to kick. And they’re developing strategies to help us make the changes we’d like to make.

“Habits play an important role in our health,” says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Understanding the biology of how we develop routines that may be harmful to us, and how to break those routines and embrace new ones, could help us change our lifestyles and adopt healthier behaviors.”

Habits can arise through repetition. They are a normal part of life, and are often helpful. “We wake up every morning, shower, comb our hair or brush our teeth without being aware of it,” Volkow says. We can drive along familiar routes on mental auto-pilot without really thinking about the directions. “When behaviors become automatic, it gives us an advantage, because the brain does not have to use conscious thought to perform the activity,” Volkow says. This frees up our brains to focus on different things.

Habits can also develop when good or enjoyable events trigger the brain’s “reward” centers. This can set up potentially harmful routines, such as overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling and even compulsive use of computers and social media.

“The general machinery by which we build both kinds of habits are the same, whether it’s a habit for overeating or a habit for getting to work without really thinking about the details,” says Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin. Both types of habits are based on the same types of brain mechanisms.

“But there’s one important difference,” Poldrack says. And this difference makes the pleasure-based habits so much harder to break. …

Read the entire article here

 

 


January 31, 2012 - Posted by | Consumer Health, Psychology | , ,

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