Below is an insert from Movement & Meaning, my book about how exercise affects the brain and helps build mental strength.
Creatures of Habit
Humans are creatures of habit, much more than we realize. For example, when we learn something, such as the route to get to work, how to tie our shoes, or how to ride a bike, a habit loop is formed in the brain and we don’t really have to “think” about these routine actions anymore—they become second nature. Engrained habit loops free up the rest of the brain to reason, process information, engage in critical thinking, and to work on more complex tasks.
Humans are able to walk upright because our brains have become very efficient at creating these habit loops in the brain for repetitive tasks. If the brain needed a lot of computing space to process things we do every day like driving, brushing our teeth, or making our bed, our heads would be so big we wouldn’t be able to walk upright. This phenomenon explains why bad habits, such as drug addictions, which have become ingrained as memory loops in the brain and function like computer programs, are very hard to break. Repeated often enough, we physically wire ourselves for addiction through habits.
Charles Duhigg describes in his fascinating 2012 book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, how AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) became the most popular and effective form of drug treatment in the world. AA began as a movement modeled after first-century Christianity when a group of people who had alcohol problems started getting together for regular Christian-based religious meetings. Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, took the group concept and moved it away from religion and solely towards helping people with substance abuse, while keeping the spiritual emphasis. Wilson himself claimed to have given up alcohol with the help of the group and so he recruited others to join and then AA exploded from there.
Duhigg, in The Power of Habit, reveals how AA, with no initial scientific basis, has helped thousands of people overcome addiction by implanting new life-changing habits and beliefs in place of substance abuse. AA participants gain the confidence that they can change and replace their old habits with new ones. By attending AA, participants are taking action consistently, habitually, and ritually, changing their life by creating a new one.
Alcoholics have triggers which bring on an insatiable desire to drink and eventually they give in and gain the reward, which could be an emotional release, a social connection, or one of a variety of other things. These “rewards” then reinforce the addictive behavior and this pattern continues between trigger and reward unless the downward spiraling cycle is broken. With alcohol or drug addiction, the substance itself takes on a person-like reality and binds itself to the addict and the two unite to create a new “person”, just like in a marriage.
This intimate union, no matter how negative, is hard to break away from just like any destructive relationship. AA intercedes to replace this addictive habit loop with a healthy feedback system of meetings and emotionally bonded relationships in which the meetings replace the ritual of drinking and the relationships provide the emotional rewards.
We really are creatures of habit, even more than we realize. Our habits are our life because they are largely unconscious. A key component to managing stress and building mental strength is to replace bad habits with healthy and life-affirming new ones.
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