Triggers and Habits
Triggers and Habits - Using your mind to change your mind
Using your mind to change your mind
©2014 by Craig R. Lang, Certified Hypnotherapist
Some time ago at a social gathering, I found myself in a discussion on politics. I generally try to avoid these but politics is everywhere and predictably, views on the topic ranged widely. One person in particular had all of the answers, at least he thought so. Others inevitably disagreed with him and each moment the discussion continued, I could see him becoming increasingly agitated. Mercifully, that conversation didn't last much longer, but it was fascinating to observe his mannerisms during the discussion. As he encountered potential conflict, he started to fidget, rub his fingertips together and began to stutter slightly. This fascinating moment drove a simple idea home to me - how factors and emotions in daily life drive our habits and behaviors.
Observing your fellow human beings, it's easy to notice habit behavior. You have them. I have them. They are part of what make us human and they form the foundation of how we move through life. Some habits are good, yet some can be detrimental, even toxic. So what is a habit and how does it get started?
Habits are learned behavior at the most fundamental subconscious level. According to the Wikipedia entry on habit psychology [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Habit_(psychology)], "A habit is a more or less fixed way of thinking, willing, or feeling acquired through previous repetition of a mental experience." Wikipedia further states that habituation is an extremely simple form of learning in which one associates a response to an event or context in a nearly automatic or unconscious manner.
Some habits are good - we can improve our driving skills. It's best to instinctively turn off the stove when you finish cooking a meal or to look both ways before crossing a street. Other habits are not so good, such as smoking, overeating, hair-pulling or nail-biting. Generally, in life we try to deeply engrain positive habits, calling it training or practicing. At the same time, we want to reduce or even remove the negative habits - yet somehow, those annoying mannerisms often seem to stick with us.
Most bad habits I have seen (and probably a few I have myself) seem to occur during times of stress, passion or enthusiasm. When our hormones get going, so do our automatic behaviors. The more stressed we are, the more our habits come into play. Like my friend at the party as the discussion grew more intense, behavior under stress grows increasingly automatic.
Many times, I note how different emotions and contexts seem to trigger different habits. For example, when we talked about politics, my friend fidgeted. When another friend of mine gets a cup of coffee, he lights up a cigarette. It's common to get the munchies while watching a late night movie. Habitual responses are context dependent and each usually has an underlying emotion. We can be happy, sad, stressed, frightened, in love, aroused, there are an endless number of emotions, each triggering specific behaviors in the mind/body.
In similar situations, I often notice how emotions and responses tend to be similar. One might be annoyed when a particular noise occurs, wherever it occurs. A smoker might want to light up a cigarette when getting out of his/her car, or stepping out for a break at work. As one experiences a particular context, unconscious programs influence one's actions and responses for that context. The primitive brain - that deep core of the central nervous system we share with the reptiles - learns these behaviors instinctively, for better or for worse. And in the case of bad habits, it is for the worse.
When helping clients quit smoking, what do we need to do to prevent that nearly automatic desire to light up? First and foremost, we need to find the environmental cues, the elements within their world that triggers the instinctive response. So prior to beginning work with a quit-smoking client, I ask the person to make a note of the circumstances whenever they light a cigarette. What is going on in his/her mind? What are his/her emotions? Are there any common threads among these circumstances?
Similarly, I ask other habit-removal clients to keep a note of times in which the behavior occurs. What is going on when you pull your hair or bite your nails? What are your emotions? What people are around you and how do you feel about those people? The list goes on, but the idea is the same - we want to find whatever triggers the behavior.
Once we understand the state of the person's world, mind and/or emotions, we can begin to focus on how to clear the undesired response. There are many ways to do this, but the simplest is basic deprogramming or reconditioning. When in the situation, try NOT doing the undesired behavior. Just once, go pour a cup of coffee without lighting up a cigarette (yeah, I know, it isn't easy). Go to the buffet table and take only a single egg roll. By breaking the habitual mold you begin to confuse the deeply ingrained patterns that govern the habit. The more you do this, the more you begin to break down the automatic response programming. With enough practice, you can remove the habit and, if you're consistent, you can even replace it with a desired behavior.
Another way of deprogramming habits involves waking suggestion techniques in Neuro Linguistic Programming or NLP. NLP involves action, thought or language patterns that help the subconscious to change more easily and decisively. Sales literature often employs NLP language patterns such as "Imagine yourself in a new [model of car], today" - words that invite the subconscious mind to create an image of the person liking this car. Another might associate a negative word with the competition - "Imagine [the competitor's product], like a car stuck in traffic - you need to wait and wait, while [our product] is like a car in the fast lane."
In quick habit-removal sessions, I often invite the client to imagine their habit behavior, along with the emotional response. Do they derive some immediate short-term pleasure from overeating, smoking or the like? We associate a negative result (opposite of a reward) with the behavior instead. I sometimes invite the smoker to picture a lit cigarette and imagine a foul smell, associating stinky smells - garbage, pollution, or worse - with cigarette smoke. Similarly, one might imagine an unpleasant or distasteful object associated with cigarettes, something one would not want to place in the mouth. The negative response counteracts the positive reward - canceling (or collapsing) the desire to respond to the habit triggers. At the same time, the new ex-smoker can imagine new, constructive behavior in response to the circumstances - breathing clean crisp fresh air as they run or walk faster, thinking of the money they are saving by no longer having to smoke, etc. We replace the bad habits with good ones and practice the good ones.
Being in a challenging situation can make it much more difficult to remove a bad habit. Sometimes the habit response is a means of coping with significant life stress, personal issues, etc. Family strife or work difficulties can drive one to seek comforts such as smoking, drinking, munching, etc. I often invite a client to explore the history of their situations leading to bad habits. I ask him/her to picture the time and circumstance of the habit. What does he/she feel and think when this occurs? These become clues we can use to explore the emotion and response pattern. Using hypnotherapy we can explore the feelings and the corresponding subconscious programming behind the habit. When did the pattern originate? When did the client learn to associate this emotion and actions to this circumstance? We can find the origin of a pattern and heal the issues associated with it, removing the driver for that habit.
Habits are core to our life experience. They can serve us or they can bring us grief. Using the power of the mind, we can change the underlying patterns within the subconscious, clearing out the undesirable responses, those actions that we, and perhaps those around us, find annoying. In this article we have seen how to truly change your own programming. It's not easy, but anyone can do it - using your mind to change your mind.