Mind & Body

Curiosity Could Help You Break Bad Habits

One of the hardest things about breaking bad habits is that they're so darn automatic. You walk into the kitchen, and you're eating a cookie before you even know what happened. You experience stress at work, and suddenly you're on a smoke break as if by teleportation. If you barely notice it happening, how do you stop it? According to psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer, the answer is to approach your bad habits with curiosity.

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A Vicious Cycle

Usually, you start a bad habit because it benefits you in some way: That cookie tastes good, or smoking cigarettes got you in with the cool kids in school. You begin to associate that habit with the good feeling it gives you. This reward-based approach stems from way back in our evolutionary history.

"We see some food that looks good, our brain says, 'Calories! ... Survival!'" Brewer said in his 2016 TED Talk. "We eat the food, we taste it — it tastes good. And especially with sugar, our bodies send a signal to our brain that says, 'Remember what you're eating and where you found it.' We lay down this context-dependent memory and learn to repeat the process next time. See food, eat food, feel good, repeat. Trigger, behavior, reward."

When you feel bad, your brain remembers that good feeling the habit gave you and goes searching it out. Soon, you've associated the bad habit not only with a good feeling, but with the triggers of bad feelings too. The triggers don't even need to be good or bad — a 1999 study found that, just like Pavlov's dog, smokers can learn to be triggered to smoke by completely neutral sounds, smells, or images. Whatever the trigger, the more you respond to it with your habit, the more you reinforce that behavior until you experience those moments where you're eating a cookie or smoking a cigarette without even knowing why. At that point, your habit is beyond your conscious control, and you have to call in the big guns.

Free Your Mind

Enter mindfulness training. Being mindful means learning to direct your attention to what you want and passively observe what you don't, especially when it comes to negative or distracting thoughts and emotions. For volunteers in Brewer's lab, the way he approached this was through the idea of curiosity. "We said, 'Go ahead and smoke. Just be really curious about what it's like when you do,'" he said.

By feeling the sensations of smoking — the shape of the cigarette, the smell of the tobacco, the taste of the smoke in their mouths — many volunteers were able to bypass that automatic response and realize how gross their habit really was. One smoker in the experiment wrote, "Mindful smoking: smells like stinky cheese, and tastes like chemicals, YUCK!"

Brewer has the results to prove it. In a study he conducted, 31 percent of smokers assigned to mindfulness training quit and remained nonsmokers for at least 17 weeks after the end of the study, compared with only six percent of those assigned to an American Lung Association stop-smoking program.

Smoking is one of the most infamously tough habits to break, so it's likely this will work for other habits too. If you're trying to kick your sweets habit, try being curious about what you eat. How does it smell and taste? How do you feel in the moment? How does it make you feel afterward? That sugar rush may not be as rapturous as your brain thinks it will be, and it might even make you feel queasy or jittery. When you're mindful of your actions, you have a better chance of regaining control over them.

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Judson Brewer's book on the technique is "The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love - Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits." We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

You Say You Wanna Make a Habit

Written by Ashley Hamer December 28, 2017

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