This is the second time that Anna Lembke, a psychiatrist, MD from Stanford, an addiction researcher, and author of the bestseller "Dopamine Nation", is visiting the "In Simple Words" podcast. In the new episode, Mark and Sofia discuss with the guest how our internal chemistry works, why radical honesty is important during addiction treatment, and how the environment influences habit formation.

The season "Science of Resilience" of the "In Simple Words" podcast is released as part of the initiative of First Lady Olena Zelenska to implement the All-Ukrainian Mental Health Program "How Are You?" The project was implemented in cooperation with the Coordination Center for Mental Health of the Cabinet of Ministers of Ukraine, with the support of WHO.

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Why good habits are important right now

In different concepts of psychological resilience, nurturing good habits is one of the key components. Thus, in the BASIC Ph model, proposed by Israeli psychologist Mooli Lahad, physical activity is one of the important ways to cope with stress and become more resilient. In another model, designed by the Ukrainian Institute of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy, beneficial actions are also one of the components of our psychological resilience. WORKING ON HABITS IN TIMES OF PROLONGED STRESS AND UNCERTAINTY IS A CHALLENGING BUT RELIABLE WAY TO REGAIN CONTROL OF YOUR LIFE. The step-by-step introduction of new useful habits and the rejection of harmful ones train our ability to withstand discomfort, live according to our own values, and increase our psychological stability.

What is a habit in terms of modern science?

As defined by the APA, a habit is a learned behavior or automatic sequence of actions that has become reflexive and independent of motivational or cognitive influences with the flow of time. That is, THESE ARE ACTIONS THAT WE PERFORM WITH LITTLE OR NO CONSCIOUS INTENTION.

Psychologist Wendy Wood writes that people in the group she researched performed approximately 43% of their daily activities automatically. They did not think about these actions and did not make a decision to do them. Such actions are habits. THIS IS AN AUTOMATIC REPETITION OF WHAT WE HAVE DONE IN THE PAST, WHICH PRODUCED RESULTS AND BROUGHT REWARDS. The reward can even be a fresh minty taste in your mouth after brushing your teeth.

Habits work without our awareness; they release mental resources for other cases where attention, analysis, and decision-making are required. At the same time, it is because of automatism that it is so difficult for us to get rid of bad habits and introduce new and useful ones into our lives.

How long does it take to form a habit?

Forming a habit in twenty-one days is a myth. It is based on information from the 1960 book by American plastic surgeon Maxwell Maltz. It refers to the testimonies of patients who underwent plastic surgery and usually had to adapt psychologically to their new appearance. It usually took them three weeks. The idea of such a short adaptation time was quickly picked up by the media and mistakenly applied to the process of forming habits.

According to the guidelines of scientists from UCL, a realistic timeline for implementing a new habit is about ten weeks. Another study suggests that new habits were made automatic within a period of 18 to 254 days, with the average timeline being on average 66 days.

Forming a New Habit: What Really Works

To dare to change, we need impetus and motivation, but it is not enough just to have a strong will and bright goal in order to form a new habit. That is why New Year's resolutions often remain on paper, and the demand for gym passes increases drastically in January and then returns to the usual level. We need to sustain a long period of uncomfortable living before a new useful activity becomes a habit. Scientists who study human behavior have hints for people on how to support themselves along the way.


Add a new habit to an existing one

It will be easier to introduce new useful activities into everyday life if you intertwine the new action with the habit that is already firmly introduced into your routine. A NEW HABIT CAN BE FORMED SIMULTANEOUSLY OR IMMEDIATELY BEFORE OR AFTER THE OLD ONE. For example, if you do not think about whether to drink morning coffee or not, but go to brew it under any circumstances – this is already a habit, so you can connect a new one to it. Do one lesson on Duolingo, listen to a minute-long meditation, read a few pages of a book, squat or drink a glass of water while the coffee brews and ripens.


Add pleasure and stir

Behavior researcher Katy Milkman advises COMBINING A NEW HEALTHY HABIT with AN ACTIVITY GUARANTEEING TO BRING YOU PLEASURE. Together with fellow scientists, she investigated a group of participants who could listen to audiobooks interesting to them only during gym training. This helped to exercise more regularly and subsequently turned it into a habit. You can adapt the idea from this study to your interests: to combine what brings pleasure or elicits genuine curiosity with useful, but less interesting activities.


Substitute, not cancel

Habits are formed after repeated repetition. So according to the study, in order to establish a fairly simple habit of washing hands, this must be repeated 220 times on average. That's why our old habits are so firmly woven into everyday life, and it can be very difficult to simply give up on them. A hint here may be SUBSTITUTING THE HABIT WITH A SIMILAR BUT MORE USEFUL ONE.

For example, eating an apple or other sweet fruit instead of a chocolate bar, rather than completely giving up sweets. This principle explains why extreme diets or marathons with a complete rejection of some type of food, although they can bring quick results, do not help in terms of formation of healthy habits.

But substitution of strong alcohol with beer is not an option

The principle of substitution applies only to neutral habits that are not addictions. According to Lembke, replacing cigarettes with cannabis or compulsive masturbation — with compulsive overeating usually does not work, because there is a problem of cross-dependence. Once we become addicted to one substance or behavior, we become vulnerable to other addictions.

Therefore, rejection and conscious sustaining of discomfort after rejection are crucial for treating addictions. According to the scientist, we need about four weeks to get rid of the feeling of craving for a bad habit. But we must be prepared that there can't be a sudden adjustment, and difficulties may follow. We barely tolerate the feeling of emptiness, so part of the path to recovery from addiction is to put up with this emptiness, to observe it, to feel it, and to reflect on it.


Flexible planning

When we consciously decide to perform some beneficial actions during the day, no matter what, under any circumstances, we are more likely to turn this action into a habit. This is proven by an American study in which one group of participants had to attend training at a certain time, and the other – in a flexible time interval. As a result, participants in the second group formed a more stable habit of attending training. RIGID TIME-BOUND PLANNING MAY BE LESS EFFECTIVE. After all, if, due to circumstances beyond our control (and there are a lot of them now), we do not perform the planned action duly, we are quite sure not to perform it at all.


Small steps without sudden movements

We often fail to implement new healthy habits because we want to progress too fast and set unrealistic goals. TO FORM A HABIT, WE MUST MAKE NEW USEFUL ACTIONS AUTOMATIC, SO THAT THEY BECOME OUR "SECOND NATURE". Small, but regularly repeated steps are more effective.

Squatting every evening before going to bed is more likely to become a habit than going to the gym twice a week. And reading one page of a book before going to bed will do more in terms of forming a reading habit than just the intention of reading several books in a month. THIS IS THE CONCEPT OF THE SO-CALLED “MICRO-HABITS”: CHOOSE THE SHORTEST AND SIMPLEST ACTIONS THAT LEAD YOU TOWARDS THE DESIRED GOAL, AND REPEAT THEM EVERY DAY AT THE SAME TIME. Subsequently, when the “micro-habit” has taken hold, increase the duration or intensity of the action. It trains our brains to implement changes in our daily routines, and as we learn to make such small actions automatically, it will be easier for us to implement habits that require more time and effort.


The environment is more important than willpower

Our brain always chooses the simplest and least energy-consuming path in order to reach the result, so even minor obstacles block our progress towards new useful habits. But we can use this feature to our advantage. To do this, it is necessary to REDUCE THE RESISTANCE OF THE ENVIRONMENT WHEN IT COMES TO BENEFICIAL ACTIONS AND INCREASE IT FOR HARMFUL ONES.

People choose the elevator, not the stairs, because it's easier. But if the elevator door closes in thirty seconds instead of ten, the majority will not wait and will go down the stairs. We are more likely to form the habit of drinking enough water if it is always on the desktop at hand. We are more likely to run if we put sportswear and sneakers in advance somewhere nearby. We will read a book before going to bed, and not doomscroll social networks if we leave the phone to charge in another room.

Lembke emphasizes that we tend to underestimate the influence of the environment on habit formation. WE ARE CONSTANTLY UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF THE ENVIRONMENT AND PEOPLE AROUND, SIGNALS FROM WHICH EITHER ACTIVATE OR REACTIVATE CHEMICAL PROCESSES IN OUR BRAIN. So, to maintain healthy habits, we need to adapt our environment and remove physical obstacles in our way to changing for the better.


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