Let’s talk about habits: healthy or unhealthy

Are your habits healthy?

  • “That’s it!  This week I’m going to the gym for sure!”
  • “I said the same thing, but it only lasted four days, total.  Why bother, life is too short!…”
  • “I’ve tried so many times, but you don’t know how much I enjoy my coffee with milk and my croissant every morning”.
  • “I understand you perfectly.  The same thing happens with my coffee, doughnut, and cigarette before starting the day.  Just one a day is no big deal, right?”

Before reading any further, I’d like to know if you’ve ever heard a conversation like the one you’ve just read.  And I’d like to know if you’ve ever been one of those people having a similar conversation.  Know what?  Not only have I listened to them, I’ve also had them at some point in my life.

With this little introduction, I would like to talk about a word that you have probably said, and heard, thousands of times.  A word that is so easy to say, but that seems so hard to do.  Can you guess it?  Exactly, we’re talking about HABITS.

I propose a simple, quick, and above all, useful read.  My goal is that after reading this article, you can review those habits that at some point you have considered eliminating, changing, modifying, etc., but now with a more complete vision.  I hope to generate curiosity in you so that, if you have the desire, you will try again.

What is a habit?  It is nothing more than an action that you do over and over again, automatically.  It is like what you may have sometimes said, or heard, “I just do it, it happens without my thinking about it.”  Repeated actions, for example, like the habit of brushing your teeth, the habit of showering in the morning, the habit of turning off the light when you leave the house, or the habit of having a croissant for breakfast… or a piece of fruit.

After reading that last sentence you are surely guessing that there are two types of habits, some that we’ll call “healthy habits” and others that we’ll call “unhealthy habits.”  The way to distinguish one from the other is simple: healthy habits favor your quality of life and life expectancy, for example, exercising, eating vegetables and fruits, reading, sleeping 7-8 hours a day, spending time with family and friends, and laughing.  In contrast, unhealthy habits reduce them, for example, drinking alcohol, smoking, eating processed foods, and consuming sugary drinks.  As I’ve mentioned, this will be a quick and useful read, without too many detours.

How are habits formed?  This is the next variable that I’ll describe, and I hope to continue to do so in a clear way.  Habits are formed over time through the repetitions that we make of a certain behavior.  Be careful, this is how habits are formed, both healthy and unhealthy.  To finish closing this circle on the formation of habits, you should know that there are two determining variables: a) a reminder (or stimulus) before performing the action and, b) a reward, that comes after the behavior. [1]

In another article, if you’d like, we can talk more in depth about this, although I’ll give you a short preview: there are unhealthy habits that do have a “positive” reward in the short term and that is how we experience it.  Think of that friend who tells you how good he feels after eating a croissant or smoking a cigarette: the short-term reward has been positive (because he “feels good”).  On the other hand, there are healthy habits that do have a “negative” reward in the short term and that is how we experience it.  Now think about that other friend who complains about how bad he feels after eating broccoli or going for a half-hour run (because “broccoli makes me sick” or “everything hurts after running”).

So let’s discuss the prior stimuli and subsequent rewards when creating, maintaining, or modifying habits.

Can habits be eliminated?  No, not “eliminated” exactly, since the neural connections created in your brain will continue to be stored (specifically, in the basal ganglia). [2]  However, we can replace an unhealthy habit with a healthy one.  In this way, the effect of the harmful habit will weaken, and the effect of the healthy habit will become stronger.  Remember that unhealthy habits have a favorable short-term payoff for your brain, and that makes them persist and repeat over time. [3]

You’re likely thinking that this seems easy to say, but very difficult to do.  Well, this brings us to the key factor to establish a habit.  I urge you to invest time, energy, and reflection into your motivation for wanting to establish that habit, that is, in the “why” of that new behavior that you are trying to initiate.  And here, I am very insistent: take all the time you need, consult with your psychologist and they will surely help you get there.  Once you have clarified and internalized that motivation, the rest is just a question of putting in the effort, increasing the number of repetitions of those desired actions over time with positive reminders and rewards – and you’ll achieve your goal!

I hope this article has helped you to reflect on your habits.  If you have questions or don’t know where to start, or you would like to tell me about situations you have experienced, difficulties you have had, or healthy habits that you would like to establish, I invite you to share them with me and I will be by your side to help you.

Finally, I want to thank you for your time and the attention to this article.  Now it’s my turn to read your comments.

Warmest regards,

Ángel Vergara Vallejo

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