Don’t “Break” your Bad Habits: Neuroplastic Brain Hacking for Persistent Pain Day 29

Maybe I’m particularly prone, but to me it’s amazing how subconscious we can be in our routines. When I successfully gave up smoking fourteen years ago, it was only the last in a line of attempts, dozens-long. Each attempt on that line was a step towards the outcome I eventually crafted. I got discouraged after the early attempts were unsuccessful until I realised this.

Those first few attempts I tried to “break the bad habit”. But fighting with myself just lead to stress. What’s a common way to unwind when you’re stressed? Settle into something familiar like (for me) rolling a durry. Boom, smoking again. That’s what some of my early attempts looked like. I’d literally be sitting there smoking before I remembered how I was supposed to be quitting.

To an extent, life is about habits. They keep us alive and well (think of the many habits we use while driving, or the habits of hygiene). It’s useful to do things habitually. The problem is when we discover the need to change a behaviour pattern. Our brains are very good at forming, but not so good at “breaking” these routines.

I’ve learned from the smoking experience that it’s not helpful to create the intention to cease a habit. That just sets up internal conflict — a fight with yourself, resulting in stress. At the very least, stress saps motivation. If you’re unlucky, the habit will resurface as a coping mechanism for the stress that you’ve created by trying to get rid of it! Instead, much more helpful is to look at replacing that habit with another, beneficial one. [1]

When we replace an old habit with a new one, we are creating a competition between the two, and if we continually feed the desired habit, the undesired one will become weaker and weaker.

This is making use of competitive neuroplasticity. It applies equally well when working to unwind from persistent pain. We must replace the body’s neuro-inflammatory habit of wind-up pain with other habits and continually feed this habit until we weaken the pain pathways for good. Like an ex-smoker, we then need deal only with the occasional flare-up.

As a twenty-four-year-old, I somehow cottoned on to this. Once I reframed each “failed” attempt as actually a step on the path to being free of smoking, I started looking at these steps as crucial learning that I could take into the next time around the cycle. I was evolving a set of new habits like tools, that eventually did win out. Smoking was just smoking. It wasn’t evolving. There was no way I could lose — it was just a matter of time.

Today I’m digging deep, returning to the visualisation technique after three days in no-man’s-land due to gastro. I find that I’ve fallen behind by about a week from where I was in terms of motivation, clarity of visualisation, pain relief. All those are cloudy.

I just want to break the cycle. I want to work my body. I want to stretch myself to create things no one’s ever seen, to seek things I’ve never seen. But I know what happens when I follow those urges. If I ignore what’s wrong in my body, the flare ups return. There’s no escaping.

The frustration is real. I just want to break the cycle. But frustration leads to stress. Stress leads to tension. Tension leads to pain. Boom, back to square one, just like smoking.

So I regather myself, re-reading passages of neuro-biology to return a sense of motivation, visioning my particular imagery to activate networks only four weeks old in the competition vs those four years old. I remind myself that this is crucial learning. Resilience in the face of setbacks is how we effect lasting change.

Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear by Frank Herbert in "Dune"
Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear by Frank Herbert in “Dune”

[1] I just found that James Clear has talked about the same thing. I must say, I’m not a fan of that pop-psychology stuff that reduces all of these lessons to little flow charts and worksheets. It seems a bit sterile. But he does present a similar idea here, and it’s worth a read:

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