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  • Writer's picturePatricia Faust

Habits - a Blessing and a Curse

Have you ever been accused of being a ‘creature of habit’? What exactly does that mean? Dr. Sarah McKay defines the common characteristics of all habits:

1. Habits involve an ordered, structured sequence of actions that are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.

2. Habits are learned over time by being repeated over and over.

3. Habits are persistent and fixed – once formed they are very hard to break.

4. Habits are performed almost automatically.

(Neuroscience Academy, Dr. Sarah McKay)

What Are Habits?

What kind of actions in your daily life are actually habits? Well, brushing your teeth, taking a shower, getting ready for work or getting the kids ready for school might be habits that you experience everyday. Habits allow you to work on ‘autopilot’ so that you can be efficient and release your brain from actively thinking about absolutely everything you do. In these actions and most of your routine daily actions you have established good habits.

What Are Bad Habits?

What then, are bad habits? Bad habits are defined the same way as good habits but they are not benefitting your quality of life or helping your brain. Perhaps you have a habit of smoking, eating snacks before bed, or staying up too late and not getting enough sleep. Negative self-talk is a bad habit that can sabotage our everyday decisions and how we feel about ourselves. There are many habits in our daily life we would love to change. But trying to break these bad habits is difficult at best. Let’s take a look at the neuroscience of habit formation and then maybe you can see how our brain functions and why it is so hard to override a habit.

The Neuroscience of Habit Formation

The area of the brain for habit formation is the Basal Ganglia. One area of the basal ganglia that oversees primary habit formation is the Striatum. The striatum is responsible for habit learning. There are three steps to learn and lock-in habits:

1. Explore a new behavior.

2. Form a habit.

3. Imprint it into the brain and monitor. (Neuroscience Academy, Dr. Sarah McKay)

When you form a habit you repeat thoughts and/or actions over and over. This causes the neurons (brain cells) in the prefrontal striatal-midbrain circuit (where habits are formed) to fire together and eventually wire together. Your brain has stored your habit as a chunk of behavior or brain activity. You have changed your brain. Good news - if it benefits your life – bad news if it causes problems in your life (alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity to name a few).

So you decide to eliminate your bad habits. You are going to exercise, eat nutritiously, stop having those after work drinks. You are motivated and ready to go. Easy, peezy right?! Well if you are depending on willpower alone to initiate a life change – then you may be setting yourself up for a huge, relapsing disappointment. There is a hormone/neurotransmitter in the brain called dopamine. This neurochemical is released when you experience something that makes you feel good. Dopamine keeps you motivated to keep going to get that feel-good sensation. Every time you see or experience something that is related to your bad habit – your brain shoots off some dopamine and that feel good sensation overrides your willpower. Your brain wears out trying to avoid caving into the feel good response. Relapse happens.

How to Break Bad Habits

There are some brain suggestions to help you break that bad habit.

· Habits are triggered by a particular cue, situation, or event.

· Habits are persistent – once formed, they are very hard to break.


· Learn to recognize the trigger for your bad habit.

· Wire a new, healthy or positive habit to override the bad-habit trigger.

If you understand that old habits are ingrained and hard-wired, it will be easier to understand that relapses will happen. Instead of being discouraged and give up – you need to be persistent and keep moving forward to create the new behavior. You need to be mindful of the the actions that you take and the change you want to accomplish. This takes time. There has been a lot of information about habit formation that states that 21 days is the optimum amount of time to create that new neural pathway. It is a myth that it takes 21 days to create or break a habit. Remember you are hardwiring a new pathway. You are creating a new behavior that your brain and you will do automatically. One careful study revealed that it takes 20-254 days (average 84 days) to reach automaticity (Dr. Sarah McKay).

Repetition and consistency will result in you brain rewiring itself. It is a process and you are again changing your brain. It is definitely worth the effort in the long run.


Goldstein, E. (October, 2014). Neuroscience of bad habits and why it’s not about will power. Retrieved from

McKay, S. Neuroscience insight: how to break bad habits. Retrieved from

McKay, S. The Neuroscience Academy (2016). Session: Change. What are habits? The Neuroscience of Habit.

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