Big Changes

Take your stinking hands off me you damn dirty ape!

Possibly the most erudite words ever spoken by a man who had supposedly just been caught in a net by bipedal apes working for the security class, but still, they got me thinking.

Recently I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Power of Habit’ by Charles Duhigg.  It explores the research that’s been done on the ‘habit cycle’ in both humans and other mammals, essentially the psychological mechanism that leads us to experience urges or even cravings for things.  It’s pop-science and so high on interest but low on reference but it rings true to me – take that how you will.

Essentially, it takes three things to make a habit.  You need a stimulus (lets say a doughnut), a routine (buy the doughnut, eat the doughnut) and a reward (the sugar rush after eating the doughnut – which your brain reads as a form of joy).  Then you have to repeat the above behaviours until your brain learns to anticipate the reward its going to get every time it completes the routine.  Then you have a habit.

That last bit is key because it means that when your brain thinks about the doughnut it experiences the jot of the sugar rush.  This joy comes without eating the damn doughnut – you seem to get the sugar rush for free, or at least on credit.  Here’s the sting, now you’ve had the rush your body demands that you pay up by following the routine and getting the reward.  You start to crave, everything pales into insignificance compared to the need for the doughnut, and somewhere within that brain of yours a damn dirty ape gets ahold of you and beats you about the head until you’ve paid your debts.

Of course, it doesn’t end there.  Now every time you see a picture of a doughnut you get the reward fired off in your brain and the need to pay the debt by eating one.  Ever wonder why advertising hoardings show pictures of stuff.  It’s not to convince you to buy new stuff, it’s to fire off the reward that you get from a doughnut, or a toy, or owning the latest technology.  They’re not trying to net new customers they’re reeling in the ones they already caught before – the ones that are programmed to respond and obey.  Ever wonder why you replaced that ‘phone that still worked perfectly well, or bought bottled water that you can cleaner and cheaper from a tap or ate a doughnut even though you knew it would make you feel sick?  Well now you know, but you wont stop doing it because as any heroin addict will tell you knowing aint enough.

So how does the reported science say we can break with habits we no longer like.  Well, in extreme cases you can remove the reward – no-ones going to be able to ban alcohol but some alcoholics take anatabuse which makes them vomit uncontrollably if they drink alcohol (interesting chemist aside, if I’m not mistaken antabuse is tetramethylthiuram disulfide, an ingredient I used to use to cure rubber gloves). Most of us don’t have this option however and so we need to focus on changing the routine part of the habit.

So… I get the craving for a doughnut.  My usual routine would be buy doughnut, eat doughnut but this time I do something new  – lets say I buy gum, eat gum.  The gum gives me the sugary taste that my brain is expecting but I’m good with it because it’s better for me.  After some time spent repeating this new routine I will cease to crave the doughnuts as badly and even when I do I can use gum to make the feelings go away.  Of course I’ve probably developed a gum habit but it’s better than the doughnut one – at least my breath smells good.

Anyway, what about the Planet of the Apes quote?  Well this quote made me think of how my life was being driven by scores of concious and unconcious habits that I’d developed seemingly at random of the course of my life.  The ape was something inside me taking hold of my mind and diverting its energies away from the stuff I wanted to be doing.  We all have habits, we all need habits, but I’m going to start taking control of some of mine.  So, ‘take your stinking hands off me you damn dirty ape’ rang true.  I decided to make a plan (don’t blame Duhigg, this is all my bad idea).  Whilst making the plan I realised that at first sight the things I want to change don’t easily fit into the box of ‘habit’ but they sort of do and so I’m going to give it a try anyhow:

Habit 1

I don’t discuss my emotions with people that I love, this leaves me feeling safe but isolated

Cue: Talking to my fiancee at the end of the day, talking to my parents on the telephone

Routine: I steer the conversation to discussion of their feelings or to facile jokes

Reward:  A sense of relief that I have not had to expose myself to risk

New Routine/Reward: The new routine will be that when my fiancee or parents ask me ‘how I am’ I will tell them whatever I was experiencing immediately before they asked.  I may tell them more if I wish but I will tell themt hat as a minimum.  As I trust my fiancee and my parents to be responsible with my emotions the reward will be a lessening of my feeling of isolation and an active act of self congratulation at me strength (a pat on the back, if you will).

Habit 2

I am very bad when it comes to eating ‘nice’ food.  I binge.

Cue: A feeling of boredom

Routine: Search the fridge and the ‘nice’ cupboard.  Go to the shop. Eat my findings.

Reward: Sugar rush.  Feeling of happiness

New Routine/Reward: I will modify the routine as follows – whenever I feel the cue of boredom I will deliberately get up and go for a short walk whilst eating a piece of sweet fruit.  If I do not eat anything that I would consider to be bad during the day then I will allow myself something unhealthy in the evening (perhaps a serving of Jam Roly-Poly for desert).

Habit 3

I am overly conflict averse and this affects my effectiveness in life

Cue: An angry person or a situation in which I reasonably expect a person to be angry

Routine: Feeling of extreme vulnerability, picking at my skin, fight or flight response, leaving the area.

Reward: Feeling of adrenaline at having escaped injury.

Modified Routine/Reward: I will modify the routine, initially so that if I stay in the area and do not engage in acts of minimisation or (mild) self harm.  A future modification will be to actually engage with the person and address their behaviour in an appropriate way.  I will also modify the reward, undoubtedly I will continue to experience the relief at not being injured but I will also purchase myself a gift (such as a book) immediately after the episode as a form of self congratulation.

I have no idea if these techniques will work, they’re half pop-science and half my own crazy thoughts but I’m going to give them a try.  I have a secret weapon hidden up my sleeve – I’ve told you about it.  I will come back to you and let you know hows its working for me but somehow, the mere fact that I’ve stated my determination in public gives me hope.

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One Comment on “Big Changes”

  1. Pam says:

    Always here for you


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