Habit: A matter of choice?

Illustration of a man trying to decide between fast food and healthy food
Photo: © Andrii Torianyk / 123RF Stock Photo

Habit defined

The Oxford dictionary explains habit as a settled or regular tendency, especially one that is hard to break or give up. Some people have a habit of interrupting people in conversation; others have good or bad eating habits, and many smoke or drink or lie because they say it’s become a habit.

A habit by nature, is repeated, nurtured, encouraged, and in many ways mastered, reinforced and automated. And as might appear completely obvious, habits are hard to break. It doesn’t matter whether these are good or bad; old habits are hard to give up, and new habits are difficult to inculcate. So how exactly are these habits formed, so literally etched onto our brains, and so impossible to be wiped away?

Habit redefined

The first time we do something and realize that we like it, there are chemical processes going on in our brains that we are unaware of. No habit has been formed yet. Let’s assume we smoke a cigarette, or go for a particular rock band’s concert, or eat a giant cheeseburger when we are upset, or do some yoga stretches that ease our stiff backs, or watch television to lull ourselves to sleep. Based on what comes out of these actions, our subconscious mind makes observations.

It affirms that smoking eases tension, this rock band resonates our tune, burgers are satisfying, yoga is a back pain reliever, and TV can help us slide into slumber effortlessly. Our brain makes casual relationships between actions and positive outcomes, and we seek the good feeling again. That is probably the reason why some of us…

… develop a smoking habit and feel it relieves stress.
… tend to listen to one genre of music and love it.
… begin to look at burgers or pasta as comfort food.
… do yoga or exercise daily and can’t survive without it.
… need to watch television every night before we sleep.

And we call all of these actions — habits.

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Dr Shefali Batra
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Dr Shefali Batra

Dr Shefali Batra is a Senior Psychiatrist and CBT Expert, and is the Founder of Mindframes. She posts and conducts regular ‘lives’ on Instagram @drshefalibatra.