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Bad Habits

Breaking Bad Habits: Why It's So Hard to Change

Woman holding a salad and a dessert

By Vickie Contie

"If something's bad for you — drug and alcohol abuse, smoking, excess weight — why can't you just stop?

National Institutes of Health-funded scientists have found clues to why bad habits are so difficult to kick. And they're developing strategies to help us change.

"Habits play an important role in our health," says Dr. Nora Volkow, director of NIH's National Institute on Drug Abuse. "Understanding the biology of harmful routines, and how to break them and embrace new ones, could help us adopt healthier behaviors."

Habits can arise through repetition. They are normal and often helpful. "We shower, comb our hair or brush our teeth without being aware of it," Volkow says. "This frees our brains to focus on different things.

Habits can also develop by triggering the brain's "reward" centers, setting up potentially harmfulroutines, such as overeating, smoking, drug or alcohol abuse, gambling and even compulsive use of computers and social media.

Dr. Russell Poldrack, a neurobiologist at the University of Texas at Austin, points out that enjoyable behaviors can release a brain chemical called dopamine. "Dopamine strengthens the habit even more," Poldrack says. "This explains why some people crave drugs, even if they no longer feel particularly good once they take them."

The good news is that humans are not simply creatures of habit.

"Humans are much better than any other animal at changing and orienting behavior toward long-term goals or benefits," says Florida State University psychologist Dr. Roy Baumeister. "We've found that you can improve your selfcontrol by doing exercises over time," he says.

young couple jogging

Volkow notes there's no single effective way to break bad habits. One approach is to become more aware of unhealthy habits, then develop strategies to counteract them: avoid walking halls where there's a candy machine; avoid places where you've usually smoked; stay away from friends and situations linked to problem drinking or drug use.

Another helpful technique is to "mentally practice the good behavior over the bad" Poldrack says. "It's not guaranteed to work, but it certainly can help."

Some people find they can replace a bad habit, even drug addiction, with another behavior, like exercising. "It doesn't work for everyone," Volkow says. "But certain patients can engage in behaviors that are ritualistic and in a way compulsive — such as marathon running — and it helps them stay away from drugs, for example."

Replacing a first-learned habit doesn't erase the original behavior. But you can strengthen the new one and suppress the original.

Poldrack is using brain imaging to study the differences between first- and later-learned behaviors. "We'd like to find a way to train people to improve their ability to maintain these behavioral changes," Poldrack says.

Some NIH-funded research is exploring whether certain medications can help to disrupt hard-wired behaviors and make it easier to form new ones. Scientists also are seeking genes that might allow people to easily form or readily suppress habits.Bad habits may be hard to change, but it can be done. Enlist the help of friends, co-workers and family.

— excerpted, with permission, from NIH News in Health (

Break Bad Habits

  • Avoid temptations. If you always stop for a donut on your way to work, try a different route. Keep fatty foods, cigarettes, alcohol and other tempting items out of your home.
  • Replace unhealthy with health behaviors. Exercise, practice a favorite hobby or spend time with family.
  • Prepare mentally. If you can't avoid tempting situations, prepare in advance. Plan how to handle temptations and mentally practice what you plan.
  • Enlist support. Ask friends, family and co-workers to support your efforts to change.
  • Reward yourself for small steps. Give yourself a healthy treat when you've reached a small goal or milestone.

Spring 2012 Issue: Volume 7 Number 1 Page 18-19