The Brain, Habits, & Self-Control


Good or bad, we are creatures of habits. We engage in something long enough, and an anatomical, emotional, and biological pattern is literally wired into the brain’s circuitry.  Overcoming bad habits means not only turning away from old ones- overindulging in food, throwing temper tantrums, running up debt on credit cards, social media addiction, porn- but starting new ones.  You can’t just focus on eliminating the bad habits, you must focus on the new healthy ones you want to replace them with. 
It’s helpful to have a working knowledge of the brain and how it works, so that the structural mechanisms of our good and bad habits can be brought to light.  If we understand how the brain works, we can better overcome unhealthy habits, compulsions, and addictions.  The following are some examples of how to use your brain’s anatomy and physiology to your benefit:
3 Major Areas of the Brain Related to Control
Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) – focus, judgement, control

  • In a healthy brain the PFC, the most highly developed part of the brain, controls the primal and emotional urges to do things unhealthy by making more long-term, wise, and rational decisions. 
  • This is where delaying gratification and long term goal-setting happens.

Basal Ganglia – pleasure and motivation

  • This is part of the primal brain which causes automatic responses such as sexual arousal, hunger, anger, fear. 
  • The basil ganglia can be overstimulated, or over-wired to take precedence in decision making, thus making it difficult to delay gratification.
  • The Basil Ganglia can become dominant, causing automatic and reflexive habitual behavior. 
  • The key in beating addiction is to strengthen the prefrontal cortex in relation to the Basal Ganglia, and start to overcome automatic behavior and thought patterns. 

Deep Limbic – emotional memories, triggers of behavior

  • Emotions are important, and make life worth living, but they must be balanced out with reason and control from the PFC. 
  • Ideally, the emotional center of the brain, the deep limbic system, will be in balance with the prefrontal cortex, so emotions can be consciously controlled, neither denied nor overemphasized.
  • This deep part of the brain is where deep, subconscious emotional memories live.  A great example is when you hear a song on the radio and it brings you back to a certain time, memory, and place.
  • Hypnosis and techniques like NLP (neuro linguistic programming) can be beneficial in rewiring this part of the brain. 

Brain Chemicals involved with Willpower and Cravings
Dopamine – motivation, saliency, drive, stimulant

  • This is the classic “runner’s high” chemical we often hear about.
  • Focus on longer, slower bouts of exercise like long walks, jogs, or bike rides to boost this hormone.

Serotonin – happiness, relaxation, calming

  • Being out in the sun boosts serotonin, as does exercise.

GABA – inhibits tension, calming, relaxing

  • Deep breathing boosts GABA, which helps muscles to relax, causes vasodilation (arteries to relax), and decreases anxiety.
  • Exercises like Yoga, Tai Chi, Prayer, and Meditation boost GABA.

Endorphins – pleasure, painkilling

  • Exercise boosts lactic acid, which is a painkiller.
  • High intensity exercise is particularly good for boosting endorphins.
  • Try things like wind sprints, timed intervals, rowing machines, and sports.

Bad habits must be replaced, not just eliminated.  Bad habits damage the brain, so the brain needs time to heal, change, and repair itself. 
The longer you’ve engaged in a bad habit, the longer you’ll need to recover.
Focus on healthy habits, and eventually unhealthy ones will take a back seat.   
Luckily healthy habits like meditation, prayer, hobbies, listening to music, friendships, sports, and exercise wire the brain in a healthy way and stimulate the chemicals which make us feel good and help us replace bad habits.  Neurogenesis, the process of the brain laying down new circuits and new pathways, is how the habit-forming process is conducted on an anatomical level.   Now get out there and build some healthy habits.
 Read Next: Introducing the Motivation Matrix Model
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