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 ‘A Life of Choice’: Routine, Ritual or Habit?

Grabbing a mask on the way out the door and a thorough hand-wash upon returning home, or perhaps more commonly staying home and meeting virtually for work and fun are just a few of the new habits picked up during the pandemic, and experts say some might stick around even after restrictions lift.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to change their habits, something that is usually very difficult for people to do.

“If you want to adopt a new habit, it’s like climbing up a mountain, and I imagine so many people would respond to the pandemic as a habit imposed on them,” Sam Maglio, professor of marketing and psychology at the University of Toronto, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on June 16.

Having rules and regulations in place has made it a lot easier for people to adopt the new rules, such as mask-wearing and physical distancing.

“When we talk about habits sticking, people often look to individual factors such as willpower, motivation, and decision. But “friction” in our environment also makes a difference – friction involves factors that make behaviours we want to do easier and behaviours we do not want to do harder,” clinical psychologist and board director with Anxiety Canada Melanie Badali told CTVNews.ca in an email.

WHY HABITS STICK

Determining if these habits will persist post-pandemic gets a bit hazy for Maglio, because while we can see each other’s behaviour, we never really know the “why” behind it.

“It is kind of a black box, you don’t really know why or what need is being satisfied by that behaviour. So, I would imagine that the answer, the peek inside that black box, might be very different for the different habits that people are expecting to stick around after the pandemic.”

And some habits that people want to maintain, such as remote work, virtual cocktails and at-home workouts, come with benefits. They can eliminate lengthy commutes, for example, or save money by making DIY cocktails and skipping the gym membership.

“A consistent theme through all of that, is people are doing it because they are, at least they think they are, getting some sort of benefit from this new pattern of behaviour that the pandemic forced them to adopt,” said Maglio.

It’s evidence people can find the silver lining in a situation, even one as challenging as the pandemic has been.

“One of the silver linings that comes out of this might be an 18-month hard reset on kind of just going along with the day-to-day and approach to how we’ve always done stuff,” said Maglio.

mask girl

ROUTINE, RITUAL OR HABIT?

And some of the habits picked up along the way, such as wearing a mask, and washing hands upon returning home have become ritualized.

“Rituals can make your life better by giving a sense of consistency,” he said.

A daily ritual such as making the bed each morning can set the tone for the entire day, he added.

Already, putting masks on has become such a part of our daily lives that when those restrictions begin to lift, some might feel naked without them.

“That ‘where’s my mask?’ might be the phantom phone ring of 2021, where it’s something that you think is there, but you don’t need to be there,” said Maglio.

Some of our new habits or rituals may make returning to normal life a bit awkward as we readjust to eased restrictions. For Maglio, because his mask hid his smile, he began laughing out loud while checking out at the grocery store, and he’s not sure that it’s a voluntary response anymore.

“It’s become automatic to make a sound, because for a while, the visual cue hasn’t been there,” he said.

The automatic behaviour is what he believes will carry on after restrictions are lifted, whether they are good behaviours or bad.

“Having an automaticity, for better or worse, is likely to stick around for a while until we learn that some stuff that we picked up isn’t needed or is destructive, and maybe the silver lining is that some stuff is helpful,” he added.

But for some people, wearing a mask and following physical distancing guidelines and other pandemic related restrictions has been more difficult. Badali says that this behaviour is to be expected.

“For some people, putting on a mask before they leave their home may be a routine (they have to think about putting on their mask) rather than a habit (they automatically grab their mask after their keys and put it on),” she said.

Some routines, she added, can turn into habits, especially if there’s a reward involved, such as a midnight snack. So some habits might come on faster than others, and some may be hard to break.

“In general, the habit memory system learns slowly over time and is resistant to change. Habits are like “autopilot mode” – we have to consciously switch out of it but it will remain the default setting for a while as your brain learns a new habit. The good news is that habits are more conducive to change when people are experiencing disruption in routines,” said Badali.

It will be important to pay attention to context as restrictions ease and lift across the country as it may no longer benefit to continue a habit.

“Habit loops may cease to be rewarded or reinforced when public health recommendations change,” she said.

We may also find ourselves quickly and easily returning to old, pre-pandemic habits, because as the saying goes: Old habits die hard.

“In areas where we return to pre-pandemic-like environments, we may find that we shift easily to old habits because habit memories are there to be activated. As the world opens up, we may fall back into old routines and habits mindlessly. There is an opportunity for us to be mindful about routines and habits in a way that enables us to choose what still fits for us and what we want to change,” said Badali.

WHEN FEAR INFORMS HABIT

Some people may be more anxious than others about losing the mask and getting up close with strangers on the bus or subway. For those who look upon those days with a sense of dread, Badali recommends using cognitive behavioural therapy techniques to help with the fear and anxiety.

“It is possible that mask-wearing, hand sanitizer use and other behaviours, could transition from beneficial behaviours that are worth doing to unhelpful behaviours that don’t really offer much benefit in terms of actual safety and, in fact, start to become problems because they fuel our anxiety,” she said. “The solution becomes the problem. In cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) for anxiety, we often look for “safety behaviours” that are used in an attempt to prevent harm and to feel more comfortable in anxiety-provoking situations.”

For Badali, it’s important to keep up to date with the science and pandemic guidelines.

“My advice would be, live a life of choice. Follow the science rather than letting emotions boss you around. Don’t get stuck. Take small steps if you need to do so.”

Brooke Taylor   CTVNews.ca Writer     @newsmanbrooke      TORONTO    Wednesday, June 23, 2021

source: CTV News


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The Neuroscience of Bad Habits and Why It’s Not About Will Power

Why are bad habits so hard to break? What if the bumper sticker “Just Say No!” actually works against us? If willpower were the answer to breaking bad habits then we  decisionswouldn’t have drug addiction or obesity. There’s something going on in our brains where we literally lose the ability for self-control, but all hope isn’t lost.

Nora Volkow, head of the National Institute on Drug Abuse calls the phrase “Just Say No!” “magical thinking.”

It appears that dopamine is one of the main chemicals regulating the pleasure center of the brain. At the most basic level, it regulates motivation — it sends signals to receptors in the brain saying, “This feels good!”

Whether you’re a heroin addict and you see an association to heroin, you’re a caffeine addict and you see a cup of coffee, you’re a Smartphone addict and you see another person pick up their phone, or if you’re hungry and you see some good-looking food, your brain rushes with dopamine and that is now caught on brain-scanning machines.

The fascinating thing is that Volkow has found that  the images alone affect the rise of dopamine in our brains. So if we pass a McDonald’s and see the arches, our brain associates that with a tasty hamburger (for some) and shoots up dopamine. That good feeling will unconsciously drive the motivation to go in and get a Big Mac. It’s a conditioned response. The same goes for anything including most likely our relationships to our phones.

A blue button with the word Change on it

What can we do?

It makes sense why more and more addiction centers are integrating mindfulness into their curriculum. Mindfulness practice has been shown to activate the prefrontal cortex and cool down the amygdala. This gives us the ability to widen the space between stimulus and response where choice lies and access possibilities and opportunities we didn’t know were there before. This is crucial when it comes to our addictive behaviors to take a step back, “think through the drink” and recognize the various options that lie before us.

We can learn to step into the pause, notice the sensation of the urge that’s there and as the late Alan Marlatt, Ph.D. said, “surf the urge” as it peaks, crests and falls back down like a wave in the ocean.

One place to start is to just get curious about the pull you feel to whatever you think you’re compulsive with. An easy one besides some of the arguably more destructive habits (drugs, alcohol) is our phones.

Today, be on the lookout for what cues you to check your app. Do you see someone else doing it? Are you waiting somewhere and there’s something uncomfortable about waiting? Is it a certain time of day or place?

Training your brain to recognize this cue can help you get some space from it to ask, “What do I really want to pay attention to right now? What matters?” As we get better at recognizing that space between stimulus and response and making the choices that run alongside our values, like riding a bike, it will start to come more naturally.

Just because our brains have been altered by our compulsive behaviors, doesn’t mean we’re destined to fall into the same habits. With the right skills, community and support we can learn how to break out of routine and into a life worth living.

By Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. 
 


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The Only 3 Choices To Make When You Want To Be Happy

by Cheryl Paige     December 4, 2015 

She looked at me and said, “It doesn’t matter what I do; I can’t change it.” This wasn’t the first time I’d heard words like this leave a friend’s mouth, but it was the first time since I had experienced some awakenings of my own.

I used to feel, as my friend did, that my life was happening to me. The belief that we don’t get to chart the course of our lives was deeply ingrained in our subconsciouses, which makes us feel totally powerless, leading to frustration and unhappiness.

But recently in my own life, I’d realized the truth. While we can’t control what happens to us, we are the only people who can control how we react to those situations.

We can react from a place of victimhood, throw our hands up in the air and say, “It doesn’t matter what I do.” But this makes us feel trapped — like there’s a wall between what we want and where we are, with no escape in sight. Victimhood contributes to bitterness and sadness.

Sometimes we flail and scream, and sometimes we resign ourselves limply to the inevitable, but at no time do we take transformative action in our lives, take back the reins, or assert that we are the captains of our own ships.

What some people never realize is that the true cause of our unhappiness is the belief that we have no control.

Tree happiness

Breaking free of that belief is a prerequisite to happiness. Here are seven things happy people believe:

1. We choose our responses to every situation.

2. We are the authors of our stories.

3. We always have a choice.

4. Life’s trials are the most crucial periods in which to affirm your autonomy over your life. Hold on tight to that.

5. Welcoming hardship comes from the belief that struggles are not happening to us, but for us.

6. Those struggles are the most efficient conduit by which we learn and grow.

7. In any undesirable circumstance, there are three — and only three — happiness-promoting responses:

1. Accept and embrace the situation for what it is.

If we’re in a job that we aren’t happy with and we choose to embrace it, we no longer complain, commiserate with friends, bemoan our situation, or find ways to rebel. We actively make the best of it, every day.

2. Change the situation.

If we stick with the job example, changing the situation can look like having a conversation with the boss, implementing new ideas for a more satisfying work experience, etc. It means making the decision to stay in the situation while working to make it better.

3. Leave the situation.

If we choose to leave the situation, we quit the job and move to another one. Make this decision not out of frustration or desperation but after calm, measured consideration about what will make you happiest in the long term.

All of these options, each as much as the others, has you in the driver’s seat. No, we can’t control what life throws at us. But we get to decide how we’ll react to it. This is your ship! You get to steer. So start charting your course.


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5 Ways To Turn Weakness Into Willpower

As Oscar Wilde once said: “I can resist anything except temptation.”

That’s something most of us can relate to. If you’re not one of us, then well done.

For the rest of us, though, there will come a time when we need to ‘not’ do something we want to do. Don’t smoke that cigarette, don’t eat that cake, or skip the soda!

As nice as life is, it is often one long list of temptations that need to be avoided. So what do we do when we are having trouble saying “no” or are fearful of trying something new? We dig deep for the willpower to push us through. Sometimes that’s easier said than done.

TO HELP US OUT, HERE ARE FIVE WAYS TO STRENGTHEN OUR WILLPOWER:

1. PLAN THE OUTCOME

In the words of Greg S. Reid: “A dream written down with a date becomes a goal. A goal broken down into steps becomes a plan. A plan backed by action makes your dreams come true.”

There are three critical components of that statement:

  • Writing it down.
  • Breaking it down.
  • Taking action.

We are often guilty of short-term thinking, only seeing what is in front of us. Instead, we should be looking at a bigger picture. So start by writing it down. It will help you become crystal clear about the direction you want to head. Then break it down into manageable parts, so the big goal seems attainable. Then, find the willpower within to take the first step and when you do, your willpower will grow stronger. It’s like a muscle, and it gets better with exercise. So exercise it!

2. AVOID IT!

Avoid situations where there is a need to make tough decisions. Tough decisions will deplete willpower fast. For example, a person who wishes to stop drinking would do well to avoid bars for a while. However, hanging out at the juice bar at the gym will help strengthen willpower, because there isn’t a difficult choice to make.

choice

 

3. REWARD YOURSELF.

Yes, when we do good things we like to be rewarded. Collect the money saved from not buying that packet of cigarettes. Collect in a jar and keep it visible. After a period, take the money and splurge on something frivolous like a spa day or new pair of boots. Like any other goals you have written down, focus on them, visualize them and embed that picture in your mind, permanently.

You strengthen your willpower when you remain focused on positive results. Draw on those feelings of success when faced with difficult choices, and you’re more likely to choose wisely.

4. BE ACCOUNTABLE.

Accountability partners are a great way to strengthen our willpower because we are more likely to do what we are supposed to do when we have to report back to someone. The added benefit is we get to call on the willpower of our partner when our willpower is lacking. Friends can achieve a lot together; that’s why they’re friends, and everyone can find a friend or a colleague who has similar goals.

Look at it another way; there is a reason that ‘clubs’ are popular, things like gyms, weight watchers, etc.  They will keep us honest, grounded, and moving forward.  Now, you don’t necessarily need to join a club; just gather a few friends and set up an accountability group.

5. STAY THE COURSE.

If there have been times in the past when we have fallen at the feet of temptation, remember those times and gather strength from them. We should never, ever, take our eye off the prize. Think about it; what changed?  Was it:

The goal? Unlikely.

The dream holiday? Unlikely.

The dream dress we’re trying to squeeze into? Unlikely.

Any other goal? Unlikely.

Instead, we probably gave in to temptation once, then twice, then three times and soon realized we failed. So we gave up. We will continue to fail until the time we don’t and that time maybe the next time.

Making change is hard. In fact, we are designed to resist change. So it might be unrealistic to think we can get there on the first try. But with each try and a clear focus on the goal, you will build the willpower to keep trying until you get it right.

Face it, without a little failure we would have no stories to tell or lessons to learn. Think once again about the goal and measure the triumphs one step at a time. When we stay the course, make a plan, avoid situations that will make things more challenging, find some friends, and then reward ourselves for each step, we will soon learn the day of achieving our big goals is closer than we think.