Identification and and short-circuiting of the “cue-routine-reward” loop with habitual behaviors and reflexive responses isn’t always as easy as it seems…
Research has isolated three components of every habit:
- The behavior you want to change. This is also known as the Routine
- The trigger –the Cue–that sets off the behavior
- What you want to get out of the behavior. This is the Reward.
Identifying the Routine
Is a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit? Research supports that it is and that this special loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.
Some authorities maintain that to understand your own habits, you need to identify the components of your loops and that once you have diagnosed the habit loop of a particular behavior, you can look for ways to supplant old reactions or habit with new routines….
Sounds easy enough, right?
We all know it is not.
So…What about those components of this ‘loop’ that are lurking in your subconscious? Those old triggers that pop up seemingly out of nowhere and sabotage your day, your plans or perhaps even your life?
A few triggers:
- Your boss raises an eyebrow and you feel the breath go out of your chest as if someone has physically hit you. Your face flushes, there is a knot in your throat. The boss is cranky, he didn’t hear a word you said and yet you took his actions personally. You then further shut down and choose to distract yourself with trivial things rather than finishing the project that will bring in the money. Why? You’re stunned at your own reaction.
- Your next door neighbor, a huge and imposing man who has a history of jail time, yells loudly at his dog as he gets home one day. You instantly feel sick and the tears start to flow. You find that you’re immobilized and confused. You finally muster the courage to go next door, only to find that the neighbor was simply playing with the big, lovable mutt–albeit a bit loudly and with the doors and windows wide open. Yet the yelling brought forth the reflexive, visceral reaction from you. Why?
- You find yourself in front of the open refrigerator at 3am after that one-sided argument with your in-denial and clearly alcoholic spouse. He’s snarky, demanding and drunk again. You’ve been attending Al-Anon, you’ve got things handled. But tonight…well, tonight you’re deflated and tonight is not the night you want to fight. You practice non-attachment, you let his words go past you. And you’ve been working diligently to take better care of your health, to honor and take better care of your needs…all has been going so well. Yet there you stand with a quart of ice cream in your hands, spoon in hand, sobbing. Why? You don’t even remember the walk to the refrigerator. The worst part is that you don’t like ice cream and you have this flash of insight that you truly don’t even like who your husband has become. Why do you stay? You find your brain knitting together a plethora of excuses for staying and for standing there with the freezer door wide open.
Experts claim you have a reward or rewards that keeps you in these habitual loops.
You, of course, are well aware of some of these reactions; other reactions confound you, yet your brain goes into the familiar overdrive pattern of justification. The “it”–your reward– feels good, and then it feels bad. Sometimes horribly bad.
Tomorrow, you promise yourself, you’ll muster the willpower to resist, change, do what you need to do, and be more aware of what is making you do what you do. Tomorrow will be different.
And there it is: Tomorrow comes and things are still the same…the habit takes hold again. The reflexes are the same– just a different person yelling at a child or a dog, a cranky stranger cocking an eyebrow and heaving a sigh, people are drinking and bickering. You find yourself finishing off the last of the cookies rather than eating the rest of the ice cream.
Diagnosing for Change
How do we actually start diagnosing and then effectively changing these reflexive and uncomfortable behaviors? We change by identifying the roots of the habit loop.
We’re looking for the root — Not just the cues for the routines. We’re looking for the roots of why the cues are triggering you in the first place. Once that can be addresses, a new plan for healthy responses can be implemented.
And what about the rewards? Can old rewards be effectively replaced with new, improved behaviors that will lead to kinder, healthier, more fulfilling rewards?
Yes, they can.
Here’s the thing: Rewards are very powerful because they satisfy a ‘something’ in you–and that something is a craving. Yes, a Craving. Sometimes several cravings. The challenge is that we’re often not conscious of the cravings that drive our behaviors. Most cravings are obvious when viewed in retrospect and incredibly difficult to see when we are running on subconscious autopilot.
So, how can we find out which cues and cravings are truly, at their roots, driving our routine behaviors?
Clues and Cues
The reason why it is so challenging for most of us to identify the cues that trigger our habits is because there is too much information bombarding us as our behaviors unfold. In other words, information overload is at work and we’re not observing or even consciously present or aware. We are caught up in the overload and letting our subconscious do what it knows how to do best.
Do you know how to drive? If so, remember how overwhelming it was to learn initially and how fluid and easy it is now? It is likely you can do a myriad of things while some other part of you drives yourself wherever you want to go. Consider this, though: When you automatically turn your car left while driving to work, what triggers that behavior? A street sign? A particular tree? The knowledge that this is, in fact, the correct route? All of them together? When you’re driving your kids to school, and you find that you’ve absentmindedly started taking the route to work – rather than to the school – what caused this to happen? What was the cue that caused the ‘drive to work’ habit to kick in, rather than the ‘drive to school’ pattern? These are cues. You’ve taught yourself how to do certain things a certain way and the behaviors have become automatic.
Research supports that almost all habitual cues fit into one of five categories:
- Emotional State
- Other People
- Immediately preceding action
Undoing the Loop
Once the habit loop is identified– you’ve identified the reward driving your behavior, the cue triggering it, and the routine itself – you can begin to shift the behavior.
Simply put, a habit is a choice that we deliberately make at some point. The pivotal thing is that we have made a choice and then stopped thinking about–we go on autopilot and our subconscious runs the show. So, we continue doing what we have learned how to do, often every day.
Put another way, a habit is a formula our brain automatically follows: When I see, sense or feel CUE, I will do ROUTINE in order to get REWARD. We’re wired for a certain way of doing things. Its comfortable. Its routine. Its what we know. And many of us are terrified of change for fear of being uncomfortable.
Yet what are you putting up with now–within yourself– that is making you worried, sick, frantic or downright unhappy that you’d really like to change?
To re-engineer those reflexive behaviors, we need to begin making choices again and the tough part is that sometimes these choices are rooted in things that are stuck, outdated or buried deep within in our subconscious. We effectively have outdated software and faulty wiring that needs to be addressed. Modalities such as hypnotherapy, guided meditation, breath work, body work, movement through restorative yoga and yoga therapies can help us to achieve the access to the subconscious that we are seeking.
And the really great news is that once we can access these choice points, we can implement a plan for changes –changes that are indeed very possible, lasting and real.
©2017 La Alza Health and Wellness
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