retrain your brain

5 Steps to Retrain Your Brain for Healthy Habits

September 11, 2016

Have you ever experienced a distinct smell that reminded you of a special memory? Something you haven’t thought of in years suddenly floods your mind, and for a millisecond, it’s as if you are there? For me, it’s the beach. Just the smell of salty water can bring about a calming sensation, thoughts of my toes in the wet sand and rhythmic sounds of ocean waves in my ears!

How Our Brains Work with Memories to Create Habits

Our brains are incredible organs, wired to recall important events and often securing those memories for life. Not only does it store these visions, but we have this amazing ability to recall the experience with all five senses. Over time, the details begin to fade, but if we are reminded of this place periodically it creates strong unforgettable images.

Similar to how our brains are able to experience memories as though they are real, our brains also create detailed information as a habit is formed. Whenever we have a pleasurable experience (a roller-coaster ride, falling in love, a delicious cupcake) our brains release dopamine; a tricky little neurotransmitter that triggers our pleasure-reward system. The brain locks in that pleasurable experience and then craves it, again and again, often confusing a “want” with a “need.”

Think of it like this: You have a really stressful day at work so you pick up a large caramel mocha. Between the buttery smell and the delightful taste, dopamine increases telling the brain this is a wonderful thing. This warm beverage temporarily rescues you from the sensation of stress while simultaneously storing this experience as a reward.

Two days later, the stress returns and you crave that mocha again. Why not? It worked the last time. Your brain sends a strong message that you need this. It will feel good. Giving in simply reinforces the pleasure-reward system and thus starts the habit-forming cycle. The more you reinforce the habit the stronger the brain connection telling you “I need this!” Make sense?

5 ways healthy habits 4

One thing to keep in mind is when a habit is developed, we are less mindful in our decision making and more on autopilot. It’s like putting a seatbelt on. We just do it with very little thought and sometimes don’t even realize we’re doing it. While putting on a seatbelt every time you get into a car is a good habit, drinking a 500 calorie mocha with little nutritional value each time you are feeling stress is not. One way to eliminate a bad habit is to replace it with a new one; one that also signals the pleasure-reward system.

The good news is that we can change these habit cycles and create new ones with a little bit of work and consistency! To start a new habit, we need to personalize it.

5 Steps to Form Healthy Habits

Step 1 - Be in the moment.

To change a long-standing habit, we have to train our brains to get out of that autopilot and become more mindful of our thoughts and actions.

One question to ask is, what are my triggers? Is it that you are experiencing stress, depression, boredom, or thirst? Try to figure out the true reason for the craving. Doing so will give you a good starting place to address any triggers. If you can catch yourself doing that undesirable behavior, backpedal and see what led up to that moment. Mindfulness while working to change the habit is essential.

Step 2 - Pay attention to time, your environment, your emotions, and what’s going on at that moment.

If it’s an intense emotion that you’re used to avoiding, give yourself permission to feel it. Emotions aren’t bad; they’re what make us human. A good cry or screaming into a pillow can actually be a great release and allow us to move on with the day without reaching for something to mask it.

Boredom is a common feeling that people often overlook. I recently asked one of my post-surgery patients how she was coping with her habit of unhealthy snacking. She replied, “When I find myself in the pantry looking for something, I usually stop and tell myself, you’re not hungry you’re just bored, and I go for a walk.” She has learned to check herself in the moment and replace the unwanted behavior.

Step 3 - Replacement behaviors.

One way to get rid of an unhealthy habit is to replace it with a new one. I am constantly telling my patients to try something new. After all, this is a new chapter of their lives. Why not take opportunities to try a few things you’ve never been able to do before or get back to those you’ve left behind.

For instance, if you are feeling a great deal of stress and old habits are telling you to curl up on the couch for a movie marathon and glass of wine, try a bike ride around the neighborhood instead. I know what you’re thinking….comfortable pajamas and a warm blanket are way better than a mile run at the end of a long day. But how do you know if you haven’t tried long enough to make this rewarding? Could this become your new habit?

Consider my patient who likes to snack. She had to be mindful in catching herself going through the motions of walking to the pantry, then identifying the real reason for being there, and replacing that behavior with a new one. It’s an intentional process that takes time for the brain to lay down that new pattern. Over time, it will become easier for her to associate physical activity with alleviating boredom. Before too long, she won’t even open that pantry door. She will just throw on her tennis shoes and go.

Step 4 - Connect the habit to other potential rewards.

Remember how I said to catch yourself doing the behavior and then back-track to see how you got there? I wonder if there is something else meeting a need that you haven’t connected with that particular habit yet.

For instance, someone in your office is always bringing sugary treats and gathering in the break room. Everyone is there because chocolate gets you through a long day, right? Well, what if what is really getting you through the day is the social time and comradery? Is it the cheesecake that is meeting your need or the social time? In this case, why not coordinate (replace) a lunch break where everyone walks and talks for 30 mins? This meets a social need, provides a physical outlet, and avoids the negative behavior pattern of eating junk during the day. See how that works!

Step 5 - Start small and use visual cues.

It’s important to start with realistic and achievable goals. If you go too big and too hard, you could get discouraged and give up more easily. Maybe you want to walk a mile before you build up to that half-mile run. Providing a motivating cue can trigger your brain before you have time to forget or engage in old habits.

Layout your workout clothes each night so you see them when you wake up. It may remind your brain, “Oh that’s right. It’s time for my morning workout now.” Keep a veggie plate on the counter when you arrive home from work. This will cue your brain that you are now eating healthy, and maybe you will avoid the chips you typically crave.

Soon enough it will become easier to grab those veggies in plain sight than to head to the pantry for the chips. Pairing desired habits with already established habits can be helpful as well.

For example, put your vitamins next to your toothbrush. Brushing morning and night is something you do with little thought and is a well-established habit. With time and consistency, you will build the vitamin habit while also maintaining your hygiene routine. Vitamins will soon become just another part of your day.

Remember, your old habits weren’t created in a day and new ones will require time and consistency as well. If you can fight through it long enough to lay down that habit-forming cycle in the brain, it will become like putting that seatbelt on.

Bariatric surgery is a unique and exciting journey; a time for self-exploration, self-care, and carving out new paths. Habits are not formed in a day, therefore we aren’t breaking them that soon either. It requires work, focus, and intentionality. So tomorrow get out of bed, plant your feet firmly on the ground — breathe, and take that first step. You've got this!

5 steps to retrain

Jennifer Captain


Jennifer Captain is a Licensed Professional Counselor in Colorado.  She obtained her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from Lynchburg College. At the Bariatric & Metabolic Center of Colorado, Jennifer works with patients from a strength-based perspective during their bariatric journey to obtain lifelong weight loss goals and overall emotional wellness.

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