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: http://jamesclear.com/how-to-break-a-bad-habit

What Are Nano Practices?

Nano practices are quick momentary habits that can change your life. I like to experiment with these lean brain-hacking techniques because they punch above their weight for how much time investment is required. Although I do not think they replace a daily formal meditation practice, they do assist us when integrating “on the cushion” insights into daily life, or making use of neuroplasticity to overcome unhelpful patterns of wiring in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord). Or both.

But taking advantage of nano practices requires persistence at first, while we craft the habit.

How to craft a habit
(this is an aside — you can skip it)

One way to build a good habit is to craft a three-step cycle: trigger -> action -> reward. You choose a trigger (or sometimes our own habit-forming consciousness will choose one for us) and use it as a reminder to perform a certain action, that you then reward yourself for doing. Ideally the action will provide its own reward, but it doesn’t have to.

It takes persistence to start that cycle rolling, and you’ll have to deliberately notice the triggers and decide each time to follow through with the action part. But as we all know, habits build their own momentum — a good thing, in the case of nano practices. Eventually it will establish a virtuous cycle of habit: the more you do it the better it feels and the better it feels the more you do it. But unlike some habits, there’s no Breaking Bad-style drug addiction looming in your life if you take one of these practices on.

Once that cycle is established through persistence, it will form a virtuous spiral that has the potential to rewire the reward circuitry in your brain through neuroplasticity.

Depending on the results you are trying to achieve you may need to graduate from persistence into something more like relentlessness. For example, in February of 2016 I was suddenly and unwillingly cut out of three parallel careers by chronic whiplash pain 1. In July 2016 I cobbled together a home-based neuroplastics intervention based on my own reading and research (I kept a diary of it for 30 days). Although still not capable of full-time work, I’m a lot better off thanks to the habitual nano practice of visualising during pain spikes (which is ongoing and probably will be for the rest of my life). I can work to a “one hour on, one hour off” schedule for most afternoons, which is a huge win compared to where I was at.

But in order to shift the pain to that extent, I had to be more relentless than the pain for about three months before it started to become baked in 2.

Just remember, no matter how much effort it takes to begin with, soon you will not need to work at it. You will automatically ignite a flicker of intention with every little trigger and then engage the practice without question. Like letting out the clutch. What an investment those early efforts are!

Further Reading

One man who wrote a book on habits (literally) is Charles Duhigg, and The New York Times has kindly reviewed his work. He suffers from the usual “motivational talker” oversimplifications, but there is some useful stuff in there.

Although much of James Clear’s content on habits is taken from Charles Duhigg’s book, habits are His Thing and he does a good job of illustrating the repercussions of habit theory. Similar to Charles Duhigg, there is a lot more to habits than what he highlights, but it is very clearly explained for what it does cover (which for both authors is a great deal more than I am, tbf).


  1. I am coping fine thanks, and not looking for sympathy 🙂 Empathy is OK, but do not pity the man who has more time to write than ever before!

  2. {Look, another little clicky balloon}
    Until I get around to writing an Introduction to Neuroplastics for Persistent Pain, the following diary update provides a basic starting point on the technique with some further reading links at the bottom: neuroplastic brain hacking technique for persistent pain.