Neurobiology Of Change

The first few paragraphs of this blog were adapted from an article on Psychology Today about why we resist change… and how specifically this relates to our habitual relationship with alcohol.

The steps to making meaningful life changes are implicated by areas of the brain that control our habits and conscious decision-making abilities. Our basal ganglia in the ancestral or primitive brain are responsible for “wiring” habits. This cluster of nerve cell bodies is involved in functions such as automatic or routine behaviors (e.g., habits) that we are familiar with or that make us feel good. Such behaviors might include nail biting, smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol habitually or following the same routine every day without making changes to it.

Social and Personality Researcher Dr Erin Baker describes this process further:  In addition to the basal ganglia, each time a behavior feels good, there is a bit of a dopamine rush. That dopamine rush motivates future behaviors, and as the behavior is repeated, basically dopamine facilitates neurons "connecting" that reinforce the habit. Basically the whole mantra of " neurons that fire together, wire together".

Habits like exercise form when we perform a certain behavior in a specific environment or context. When we do something like put a seatbelt on (an action) when we get into a car (a contextual cue), we develop automaticity, or an automatic behavior in response to the contextual cue. In the “Psychology of Habit,” Wendy Wood and Dennis Rünger from the department of psychology at UCLA wrote that while some of this automatic cuing may be unintentional, deliberately cuing ourselves could help us to engage in particular habits.

Just as coming home after a stressful day at work might have become a “cue” for habitual response such as pouring a glass of wine, we can create new habitual responses. It will take a bit more work initially, because we are activating a different part of the brain and have to engage in conscious action planning for awhile, until this new response or activity becomes a new habit.

Any type of change like incorporating a physical activity into our routine after a period of being sedentary can go against the neural pathways that have become automatic to us. That is why we tend to fall back on our default or automatic behaviors when we try to implement changes like a new diet or physical activity after a period of inactivity.

Although we can consciously control the decision to work out, this is the responsibility of a separate region of the brain known as the neocortex, which controls conscious decision-making in the brain. Our conscious actions require much more effort. If we want to overcome a lack of motivation and other obstacles that are getting in the way of our success, frequent exercise and conscious action planning are involved in making an exercise habit stick, according to Lena Fleig and colleagues(2013).

This is where accountability becomes critical for your behaviour change relate to alcohol. As I frequently say to my clients, “if nothing changes, nothing changes…” You CAN change your relationship to alcohol the same way you change another habitual pattern (as long as there is no physical dependence).

Creating a reward system can also help motivate change in the beginning. Rewards will trigger dopamine, which feels good. Eventually, following through on the new behaviour starts to feel so good that the reward is no longer as necessary. Charles Duhigg describes this in his book, "The Power of Habit." The cue - behavior - reward system, and so it's equally important to reward yourself for creating a new behavior as it is to have a cue. Interestingly, at some point the brain wires so that the behavior itself actually becomes rewarding and the reward is no longer needed.

In her interview for the Redefining Sobriety Summit, Dr Delafield Heinrici, a Board Certified Addictions Physician, talks about the importance of creating change in other aspects of your life (which can help with the neuro-”cueing”) and having other supports in place to help with accountability and motivation for change.

Remember, change is hard… we are literally hard-wired to resist it.

This is why accountability systems are so important, whether they be “cues” like programming reminders in your phone or scheduling alternative activities during times you are more likely to habitually crave a drink, or reaching out to a friend at the same time each day (before you start to crave a drink or fall back into an unconscious habitual response). This is also why having unfailing and non-judgemental support, with a combination of evidence-based strategies (based on information like you’ve just read) and practical, lived experience - is essential. I offer all of this and more in my consultations, and the first one is always free. I look forward to connecting!