What’s the first step of habit change? Going off autopilot!

Posted on June 2, 2015

– Carrie Wilkens, Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change

Changing behavior requires self-awareness. Changing a well-worn habit in particular requires that you move it from “automatic” to “conscious” so that you can make other behavioral choices. For example, if you don’t even notice that you are reaching for a cigarette as you get into your car, how are you ever going to decide to resist lighting it up?

Habits are influenced by your environment and are set off by environmental cues, sometimes called triggers. Triggers are the people, situations, locations and emotions associated with any behavior you are trying to change. When it comes to substance use, triggers are the environmental variables that provoke “cravings” or the desire to use or engage in the habit. Neuroscientists have studied the trigger effect in the brain—how an encounter with drug paraphernalia or the smell of a long-frequented pub lights up the part of the brain responsible for emotion and instinct, the “feel good” parts of the brain. As you encounter these cues in your daily life, it’s likely that you are on autopilot and don’t even notice how they are linked to your decision to engage in your habit. Scientists have also found that once these habits are engaged, the brain has a difficult time considering the consequences and risks associated with the behavior. In other words, once you are in your car, smoking the cigarette, it’s not likely that you will have the wherewithal to say “this is really bad for my health, I’m going to throw this cigarette and the rest of the pack away right now.”

If you are wanting to change a habit, it is important to start with identifying the cues/triggers (both internal and external) that lead up to the decision to engage in the behavior.

  • What are the usual times of day/night associated with this behavior?
  • What are you doing?
  • What are you feeling?
  • What are you thinking?
  • Who are you with?
  • Where are you?

The good news is that by understanding these triggers you can go about altering your

environment in order to support change. In addition, when you replace old behaviors with more positive actions, new neural pathways are forged. Thankfully, triggers tend to lose their strength over time as the old pathways power down from disuse.


  • Address your environment: You can choose to be one place or another. You can avoid certain places or certain people. You can consciously alter things in your environment to make it safer (remove paraphernalia or any other visual cues to use).
  • Be conscious! Much of daily life is out of our control but we can make conscious decisions about some variables and doing so can make a big difference. Who are you spending time with? Where are you hanging out? How are you responding to certain emotional states?
  • Pay special attention to the internal triggers (the feelings and the thoughts). Do you need to get specific help with anxiety? How can you go about tending to your loneliness? Fatigue? Anger?
  • Be proactive and deliberate. As you try to resist old behaviors, be creative and engage in life-enhancing alternatives so that you don’t feel deprived.
  • Ask for help. Changing your relationship to behavioral habits often involves including other people. Let people know what you are trying to do so that they don’t accidentally contribute to your being exposed to your triggers.

Remember, making changes in behavior require new learning. No one is an A student over night. Be patient with yourself as you navigate your day to day and encounter triggers and possibly the desire to engage in your habit. By shifting out of “automatic” and trying to be aware of your triggers you will have a much greater chance of changing your behavior and patterns. Conscious decision making leads to change!

Dr. Carrie Wilkens CMC

Dr. Wilkens is a Clinical Director of the Center for Motivation and Change in NYC which she co-founded with Dr. Jeffrey Foote. She specializes in motivational treatments and group psychotherapy, and has worked with traumatized populations in both individual and group modalities.

Source: Center for Motivation & Change (used with permission)
………………….Center for Motivation & Change

Thank you, Center for Motivation & Change for sponsoring the
2014 SMART Recovery Annual Conference, September 26-28



8 thoughts on “What’s the first step of habit change? Going off autopilot!

  1. Cheryl E.

    Great article. I’ve had a cochlear implant, made me unbalanced and shaky. Wine seemed to help. But I’m sneaking it. Hubby wouldn,t understand.I was married to an abusive alcoholic, now I’m drinking. Gotta break this habit. Thx

  2. HughK

    Lot of fundamental value here!
    “No one is an A student over night.”
    Reminds me of:
    “God grant me patience, but hurry up and do it!”
    Early recovery is a slowly evolving, awakening, raging pain in the butt!
    “If you are going through hell, keep going!”
    Great to have these very valuable reminders of what to focus on to assist with my so very valuable change.

  3. Stephan

    What really stuns me (and I mean this in non-confrontational way)is that we hear about the idea of becoming conscious but there seems to be no instrumentation for this process except for rigorous focus on things such as surroundings and emotional triggers.

    There is this great book out(now, hardcover) titled “The Evil Hours” an autobiography of P.T.S.D. I’m not running to my room to get the author’s name, the title will suffice. Anyway, I’ve been struggling with a drinking problem that has persevered for over 21 years. I have to have a drink at night. No other time. My history is that the abuse took place at night so it’s my favorite way of dissociating.

    I had a voracious appetite for stimulants (I’m from English stock so I started drinking strong tea at the age of thirteen), which led to a crippling dependency on coffee and sodas to get me through the day. Which increased my anxiety which then led to extreme panic attacks and tending toward agoraphobia. The only way I could come down from my hyper-panicked state was to use alcohol. So I’ve seesawed between being up and then coming down and having to get back up the next morning because I was so “down.”

    I was a landscaper/gardener, which allowed me to make a living and allowed me to isolate because I was strongly antisocial. Cut to present day. I no longer am a gardener and I’m slowly being pushed into jobs where I have to be around people, which is difficult but a good thing.

    This started me on a journey to try and understand why I was exhibiting behaviors that were equal to if not more than a person who had survived several violent tours in Iraq. I’ve repressed the memories from my past but my oldest brother committed suicide due to what he experienced and I was next in line. I’m in therapy and we are on the fence as to whether I am a multiple or just severely dissociative. Which explains the unconscious over-reactions to triggers from just having a person walk up behind me to stepping into a room when the door closes and feeling like I’m going to die.

    I’m not stating these things to get sympathy, just trying to relate why I am so desperate to understand my P.T.S.D. I didn’t even know I had P.T.S.D until I watched a show about these two war vets who returned to America, changed men (a great documentary@takepart/vets.com “That which I love destroys me.”) This one vet became homeless because of his P.T.S.D. It suddenly hit me that that is what I have.

    I’ll try and make this shorter. I am a caregiver and take care of a man who has had a stroke. I became aware that my use of alcohol was also contributing to my panic attacks and social anxiety. This leads back to the topic of this blog. Apparently with stress and constant stimulation of anxiety, the amygdala(?) grows larger. Google “P.T.S.D. and meditation” and it will explain what this part of the brain does. Meditation decreases the size of this part of the brain and allows a person to begin to separate from their thoughts and become more mindful. The minute I understood that I started meditating and after three days I am aware that things are calming down, as well as the addictive voice.

    Another article I read that helped me understand my P.T.S.D. is in the current issue of Vanity Fair (Star Wars is on the cover) by Sebastian Junger about why soldiers miss war. There is a neuro-peptide called Oxytocin in our brain. This developed over time to encourage us to be social. As hunter gatherers we grew to understand that together we would do better at survival than on our own. Oxytocin is produced from social interaction and only that. We have hunger pains when we need to eat and we exhibit P.T.S.D. when we withdraw from society. It seems the cure to P.T.S.D. is the thing that makes us human. Community.

    The article gave an example of soldiers in their units being a part of a complex, tight knit social group. Coming back to America no longer with their unit, they go through a huge oxytocin withdrawal which can lead to extreme anxiety, paranoia and rage. You can a large dose of Oxytocin by looking in your dog’s eyes, hugging a friend and talking or making love. Can’t buy a pill for it so I guess that one thing that has been my greatest fear is now my only hope. Thanks.

      1. stephan

        I know about the ratpark. I’ll check out the lead anyway. My therapist tells me about it every couple of months. I would recommend to anyone that meditation is working. I had a particularly difficult day and I’m used to digging into my fragile self for mistakes I think I’ve committed. I was able to separate from the abusive thoughts and after about five minutes it began to fade. I feel like I’m in control for the first time in my life. Thanks for listening.

  4. Madan D.

    It was indeed an informative post and it will help me to make myself a better person……

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