– 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.”