Do you have a habit or something that you keep doing over and over again that frustrates you or others around you? A habit that you really want to change? Rewiring your brain to improve how you act is possible.
That's what we are talking about today on Episode 1: Upgrading Your Habits.
Your Better Mental Wellbeing is a weekly podcast helping you to manage stress and build resilience with easy evidence-based tools.
We're your hosts, Neera and Soen.
Dr Neera Dholakia is a GP for Boots Online Doctor and the NHS. She is an expert in mental wellbeing and has extensive experience designing mental health services whilst working for NHS England, Healthy London Partnership and mental health trusts. As well as promoting self-care, she also works to improve mental wellbeing in the workplace.
Soen Trueman is a full stack developer with Boots Online Doctor, specialising in graphics design, user experience, and user behaviour. Soen’s interests in behavioural analysis extends to psychology and further to neuroscience, which he is currently studying at Harvard University.
Links to this week's discussion:
[02:56] What habits are, why they are useful and why they can also be unhelpful
[05:14] Neuroplasticity and the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways
[09:02] How habits develop and how noticing our cues and triggers can begin to change them
[13:14] Why motivation and willpower is not enough
[16:29] Making mistakes and slipping up, but not giving up
-Believe you can change your habits - neuroplasticity means that our brains can rewire to form new pathways and connections
-Ask yourself why you really want to change - how does that habit make you think, feel and do
-Do something achievable that you can stick to over and over again, even when you are tired or have low motivation
Join us next time when we discuss how to manage stressful moments.
Find our more:
For transcripts visit our website: http://yourbettermentalwellbeing.show
For great health, lifestyle and wellbeing information visit: https://onlinedoctor.boots.com
The information in this podcast is not intended to replace your own GP or other doctor’s professional medical advice.
Do you have a habit or something that you keep doing over and over again that frustrates you or others around you? A habit that you really want to change? Rewiring your brain to improve how you act is possible. That's what we're going to talk about today on Your Better Mental Wellbeing, helping you to manage stress and build resilience with easy, evidence based tools.
Hello and a very warm welcome to you to this brand new podcast. You're listening to Episode 1, Upgrading Your Habits. I'm Dr. Neera Dholakia. I'm a GP for Boots Online Doctor and the NHS and my expertise is in mental health and wellbeing. I've enjoyed working with NHS England, Healthy London Partnership and mental health trusts designing services for mental health and I'm really pleased to be hosting the show focusing on improving your mental wellbeing.
And I'm Soen Trueman. I'm a software developer for Boots Online Doctor with a background in neuroscience research and I'm excited to co-host this podcast and help you understand the science of mental health and wellbeing.
Just before we get into it, I wanted to let you know that Boots Online Doctor has lots of great information on lifestyle and well being. You'll find this on the website at onlinedoctor.boots.com.
Now let's get off autopilot and talk about habits.
So Neera, what's an annoying habit that you have?
I've got this habit of questioning if I've locked my front door. So on a regular basis, I leave my house, get halfway down the street, and then the thoughts come in. Did I lock the door? I must have locked the door. I don't remember actually locking the door. Should I go back and check? I'm sure it'll be okay. I don't want to get burgled. I'll miss my train if I go back. And then, why do I do this every time? Why am I not being more careful? It's a whole train of thoughts that comes in.
So, what impact does that have on you?
Well, I waste time in indecision. I waste time going back and checking, and sometimes it can bother me during the day. It also annoys anyone I'm with, particularly if we have to go back and check.
And have you actually left the door unlocked before?
Only once in ten years of living there.
So, you're doing it on autopilot. Doing it, but not being aware that you're doing it.
Yes, exactly. And I want to change my behaviour so that I can feel secure and calm and get on with my day without worrying about that. Soen, what about you?
I'm really untidy. I just go straight from one project to the next without even thinking about tidying up after myself. And that leads to further problems down the line. For example, I'm forever losing things and getting angry at myself for doing so. So it would be great if I could understand why I'm not a tidier person.
And why do you actually care about being tidy, do you think?
It's about pride, really. I want to be a tidy person and feel proud of my home.
Okay, so on that note, let's talk about what habits are and how we can adapt and change them.
Habits are behaviours that we repeatedly do, things that we do over and over again, and often they become something we do on autopilot. So by consciously repeating a task, the brain learns to do it automatically, so we don't spend much thought or effort doing it. Some habits that we do on autopilot are really important and helpful for us, such as walking, brushing our teeth and chopping vegetables. And some habits we do on autopilot are unhelpful and can be frustrating or have a negative impact on us. Things like snacking, nail biting, or flicking through our phones before bedtime. Many of our problems and stresses in our lives are actually habits.
So, normally we think of habits as actions we take, but actually there's three different types. They could be thoughts, emotions, as well as actions. So a thought habit might be: 'I'm feeling tired, I'm going to do that later'. Or an emotional habit might be comfort eating when you're feeling down. Or an action habit, such as washing the dishes after a meal. Often these things are so automatic we don't even think about doing them, we just do them. As the philosopher and scientist Aristotle said, we are the sum of our actions and therefore our habits make all the difference.
When we think of our habits, many of us think of habits we want to add into our lives. Perhaps they are healthy habits such as exercising more, eating better or drinking more water. We might have even tried to develop these habits before, but they haven't stuck. The first and most important thing is that we can change. Our brains have the ability to adapt and rewire. You can learn to write with your other hand, drive a car on the wrong side of the road, or learn to play a musical instrument whether you're 8 or 80, so there's always hope that you can do something differently.
Yes, and that's really key, isn't it? Understanding that your habits aren't necessarily a fixed part of you.
So how can we change? Today, let's focus on simple habits we already have and want to change, and these tools will be the building blocks to developing other habits we want to start. Soen, how does the brain rewire itself?
Well, the brain is pretty amazing. It's constantly changing and learning throughout our lives by reshaping itself like plasticine, which is where the term neuroplasticity comes from. Now that sounds complicated, but it's really just the ability of the brain to form new connections and pathways and change how its circuits are wired.
That's what's really great about the brain, compared to computers which I'm used to using, is that my computer is built a certain way, fixed in its structure, and can receive software updates every now and again to improve its functionality. Your brain never needs software updates, because it's constantly updating the software all of the time, every second that you're awake, because you're constantly learning and adapting to new things in your life.
And whilst that does change with age, neuroplasticity is there for our entire lives, meaning we can always learn something new and adapt. It's very strong in the young brain, with the first five years being a period of very rapid development. Then, between the ages of 15 and 20, there's a more focus on developing social skills and connections. And then as we get older, neuroplasticity changes to stabilise what we've already learned, but can still enable us to learn new things. And this amazing ability of the brain allows us to change and develop habits. Whenever we do something, or feel something, or think something, one of our brain pathways is activated.
When we do something repeatedly, this pathway becomes easier and faster until we form a habit. Then, if we choose to learn something new, do a task in a different way, or change the way we think or feel about something, we create new connections between our brain cells, which forms a new pathway. I always like to think of pathways in your brain like a road. The first time you went down that road, it might just be a dirt track. But if that route becomes more popular, it might get upgraded to a tarmac road. And then, as it gets more popular again, a dual carriageway, and if that road becomes really busy, it gets upgraded to a motorway. The same goes for the brain. The more we use a pathway, the easier and faster it becomes, and the old pathway doesn't get used as much. We've changed our brain's default mode of operation. We've rewired our brain.
Yes, I remember going on holiday and having to drive on the other side of the road. I was used to sitting on the right side using my left hand to change the gears, so doing this totally on autopilot. Instead, I was now sitting on the left side and I needed to use my right hand to change the gears. However, my natural reaction was to use my left hand, and so I kept accidentally trying to open the car door or wind the window down.
I bet your passengers love that.
They were a bit terrified, but eventually I got used to it, and it actually felt strange going back to driving the other way. So what we need to do is to stop reinforcing the pathway or habit we're used to doing, and intentionally replace it with something else, something more helpful, and then repeat this over and over again to really establish the new pathway and the new habit.
Yes, exactly. It does get a bit more complicated when we have a very welcome reward from the habit we want to change. For example the nice sugar hit from eating chocolate.
That's true. But also when you do make a change, every time you achieve it, you get a boost your self esteem and this releases dopamine, a feel good chemical, which you do also get from eating chocolate, but here it signals to your brain that you did something positive and this gives you the push to stick with it and makes you more likely to do it again. So this is particularly important when we are changing unhelpful habits, such as reacting with fear. For example, being scared of seeing a snake, or seeing or feeling a needle or injection. It also includes feeling fear or anxiety when in a social situation or when needing to perform.
That leads us to talking about triggers and cues for our habits. When we identify these triggers and cues, we can start to understand why the habit has developed and how we might make a change at an early stage to break the cycle. Neera, have you thought about the trigger that starts the train of thoughts questioning if you've locked your front door?
I have. I've found that I often check my pocket to make sure my wallet is in there, and I keep my keys in the same pocket as my wallet. So when I check for my wallet, I think about my keys and my brain fires up.
I see. So really, You checking for your wallet is the trigger for you thinking about whether you locked your front door or not, so your actions then link up to your thoughts.
Okay, so let's take a common habit many people have in the age of constant notifications on phones and talk through a bit about why this can become a negative habit and what we can do to start breaking the cycle. The cue or trigger is a notification on your phone about a new Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook post. You're curious, so your action is to have a look at that post. Your immediate reward is that you feel good because it was a An interesting post, or you feel good because now you've seen it and you won't have to keep seeing the notification icon and wonder what you're missing. But then you fall down a rabbit hole and get sucked into looking at other posts and stories, and then suddenly ten minutes have gone by. And then you might feel guilty about spending or wasting that time. So, Neera, I'm wondering, how would you start breaking the cycle?
The first thing is to notice and observe the cue or trigger. What do you notice about the notification? Is it a sound or a buzz? Or just a symbol to alert you? Are they set for particular times of day, for example, waking hours only? And do you get them for all your apps or just ones that you really want to know about? So really pay attention to what you then do. What action you take on getting that notification. So do you feel the urge to look straight away? Could you leave it until a more convenient time? And if you don't look at it, does it distract you from the activity you're doing? And if you do look at it, how long do you spend? And once you've finished, how long does it take for you to resume what you were doing before? Then think about how much do you really want to change this habit? Ask yourself, why do you want to change it? Then ask yourself, how does this habit make you feel? This is how we can use thoughts and emotions to build motivation to change.
And the motivation is key here. I want to be a tidier person because then I don't lose things so often, which often causes me frustration. So I can use that feeling of frustration to motivate me to change my habits.
Also, it's got to be achievable for it to be sustainable and for you to continue with it.
Think about what would really work for you that you could follow through on, keep going with, even when you're feeling exhausted and your motivation is really low.
So, with the apps and notifications, it's helpful to be clear and specific about why you want to change that habit. I might say to myself, I want to change this habit because it is taking up too much of my time and I'm left feeling guilty about it. I've also noticed that a lot of the time what I read and what I look at isn't actually relevant to my life. So, how can you change the habit? What is important to you and what is achievable for you? Perhaps you need one of the apps for work or family, but don't need to look at the rest of your notifications immediately. Or, in the middle of the night, it's only important to get a WhatsApp from your partner or parents, looking at the ones from friends or groups can wait till the morning. So what could you do to help with this change?
You can enable the change by focusing on the cue. You could change your notification settings, taking off the push ones from certain apps, perhaps change the times that notifications come through or from which people, or you could take off the notifications altogether and set aside some specific times in the day to give yourself space to catch up on the various posts and pictures and videos and stories. By turning off or ignoring notifications, you're then removing that trigger that we talked about earlier.
By making the change easy and achievable, you're giving yourself the best chance of success. So let's say, what if I wanted to change a habit of, say, eating a biscuit or some crisps mid afternoon, and I've tried to do this before. I felt really motivated initially and I swapped to eating nuts or popcorn and used my willpower to say no to the biscuits or crisps. I felt really good about this, but after a few days when I'm feeling tired or fed up, my willpower just doesn't feel strong enough, and I cave in and have a couple of biscuits. I then feel like giving up, as I've not managed to keep going with it.
Right, this is really common. We start off with great intentions, but then something gets us off track, and it's hard to get back on, and we feel that we've failed. We end up falling back into old patterns and habits, as that is the strongest pathway we currently have. Here, we're dealing with willpower and motivation. Motivation is the purpose, the why you want to change something and the reason to keep going. And willpower is the ability to control yourself and the decisions you make to change.
Both willpower and motivation are important in changing habits, but they're not enough on their own. Willpower works like a muscle, and it gets tired as it works harder. And like other muscles, when you're feeling low, tired, or don't have as much energy, it's much harder for it to work. And motivation can come after you start doing something. Particularly if you see some early results, you might be able to build some motivation. But it's also inconsistent. It varies with your energy levels, your mood, and with the pressures of daily life. So you can't rely on willpower and motivation, as they may let you down. This is why it's important to focus on one small change. That you can keep doing repeatedly to build that habit, even when your willpower and motivation is low. Remember to be kind to yourself by keeping it simple.
So I would say to myself that if I wanted to eat a chocolate biscuit in the afternoon, I could swap it for a plain biscuit or an oat bar. It's a small change that I could get used to and not so big that it feels weird to me.
In later episodes of this podcast, we'll look a bit deeper into our willpower, motivation and self-control and how that plays into habits we are finding difficult to change. We'll also begin to understand why a more complex habit may have come about and how we can develop new healthier life habits.
So let's go back to your door locking issue. Have you tried to do something different to stop you second guessing if you've locked your door?
Yes, I discovered that I was completely on autopilot when leaving the house. I was picking up my keys, locking the door and then walking away. And I was already thinking about the day ahead and what I needed to do. So, I actually decided to really notice putting my wallet in my pocket. and putting the keys in the lock, being present in the moment and acknowledging to myself that I had locked the door. So initially I said it out loud, but eventually just in my mind. And a friend told me that they had a similar issue and actually videoed themselves locking their door.
So you're already making a start on developing a new neural pathway. Have you had any slip ups?
It's only been a couple of weeks, but yes, a few times I've not paid attention when I've been in a hurry, or when I've already put some music on, or when I've been talking to someone else.
It's natural to slip up when you're starting a new way of doing things. The brain learns just as much from us making mistakes as getting it right. It's also a myth that it takes 21 days for a new habit to become automatic. The research shows that, on average, it takes just over two months. It can take less or more time depending on the habit. For some complex habits, it could take over six months. And missing a day or opportunity does not make any difference. So, even if you miss out doing it a couple of times, go back to it, and your brain pathway will keep being strengthened. Slipping up does not undo the hard work you've already done.
And that's really encouraging, Soen. What's been your experience making a change to your habit of leaving things untidy?
So whenever I've finished a project now, when I think that I'm finished, I remind myself that the work is only half done. Now comes the second half, tidying up after a project. Whether that's putting the files in the right place on the computer or putting away tools I've used on a DIY job, I remember that I want to be a tidier person. I'm proud of my home, and use that feeling to motivate me to tidy up.
Okay, Neera, I was wondering, is there any way I can increase my neuroplasticity to make it easier to change my habits?
Absolutely. Mindfulness meditation has been shown to increase neuroplasticity. It improves something called our interoceptive awareness, which is how the brain tunes into the signals from the body, and this can lead to reduced stress and anxiety. More on that in the next episode.
Soen, it's been really great talking about our habits and how we can change them.
I've learned that there's definitely hope to change how we behave.
Neuroplasticity allows our brains to rewire, forming new connections and pathways, and in this way new habits can form and become automatic. When we want to make a change, we need to ask ourselves why we want to do it and how important it is to us. Then by developing our awareness of our habit, we can notice and observe what happens when the habit is in action, what the cues or triggers are, and how we respond to them. Then we can think about what changes we are able to make to break the cycle.
We can't rely on willpower and motivation alone, so the key is to make the change something we can do over and over again, and letting go of thoughts of failure if we slip up, because we can get going with it again. It's also important to be kind to ourselves and start by making small changes that are achievable and sustainable. And accept that we need these building blocks to make those bigger changes we want and to develop new healthy life habits.
This week I'm going to concentrate on turning my frustration into a positive action.
And I'm going to keep working on paying attention to actually locking the door.
What small habit do you have that you want to change? Why do you want to change it? And how much do you really want to change it? What first step are you going to take?
Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Your Better Mental Wellbeing.
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Visit our website for transcripts and more information on yourbettermentalwellbeing.show
Join us next time for episode 2, Managing Stressful Moments.
And remember to live your values, accept yourself, and let go.
Music credits: Main theme by AudioCoffee, Impactful 10 by Dream-Protocol, Jingle by Serge Quadrado Music