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It took a lot of work, but you finally stopped reaching for the pint of ice cream after a long day or a disagreement with your partner. But now what?
When it comes to living a happier, healthier life, breaking bad habits is the first step. What comes next is filling the space left behind with ones that push you toward your goals.
Habits are behaviors people engage in outside of conscious thought and are reinforced through repetition. Routine, familiar contexts or stress trigger these activities, as part of the brain regulates some of our actions to free up space so the conscious mind can focus on thoughts that require more problem-solving, social psychologist Wendy Wood told CNN.
We may often see only the bad habits, but helpful automatic actions are and can be programmed to be the first response to stress, said Wood, a professor at the University of Southern California.
“Everyone thinks, ‘OK, I’m a stress eater.’ They don’t think ‘I’m a stress exerciser or I’m a stress worker,’ but in our research we find that people do those things as well just as often as acting badly,” Wood said.
Since the habitual side of the brain is connected but not separate from the thinking brain, weeding out the bad and maximizing the good takes more than just the will to do it, she added.
A ‘good’ habit is what works for you
The bad news: There is no one-size-fits-all list of good habits to add to your life. The good news: Experts say a good habit can be whatever works for you.
“Most habits are set up in a good way. They help us survive. So, it’s great that I don’t have to relearn how to put my clothes on or how to get my spoon in my mouth, right?” Dr. Judson Brewer, executive medical director of behavioral health at Sharecare, told CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his recent Chasing Life podcast. Brewer is also an associate professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University Medical School.
Educator Michelle Icard works with families to help their children navigate adolescence, and when she recommends strategies to build productive habits in response to stress, she said it’s best not to get too prescriptive.
Icard and her clients make a “try this first” list of 20-minute activities that are enjoyable and disrupt negative patterns of thinking. Many adults want to see their children engage in obviously healthy things like reading or exercise, but Icard said it’s less about the activity and more about getting in a better headspace.
“This is such a personal thing to feel nourished and feel like you are taking care of your own life,” said Icard, who is also author of “Middle School Makeover: Improving The Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years.”
Movement and therapy are two go-to healthy habits John Duffy, a Chicago-based clinical psychologist, most often encourages people build, particularly in response to stress, but he also finds there is no sweeping answer to a good routine.
“I think some people are most adaptive and recharge their batteries when they go out and they establish a habit of like we’re going to have a book night and a dinner once a week. Other people charge their batteries by being alone. … They just want to sit and binge-watch,” Duffy said. “You don’t want to necessarily draft off of what somebody tells you.”
Reduce obstacles to make it stick
Once the good behavior is identified, it takes a game plan and a good feeling to put it in place, Wood said.
“Habits form when you repeat a behavior in a given context and you get some kind of reward for it,” Wood said.
The reward can be as simple as pride in the action or pure enjoyment of the activity, she added, and if it is something that feels good, your brain will release the chemical dopamine, often called the “feel-good” neurotransmitter, which helps reinforce the habit in your brain.
That means if more exercise is the goal, it may not be wise to force yourself to the gym when a long walk in a beautiful park is going to keep you coming back.
Then, to turn it from a one-off into a routine, Wood recommends two strategies: reducing friction and temptation bundling.
It’s important to make the good habit convenient, she said. When a night owl tries to wake up early to get more reading in or a hopeful novice athlete signs up for a gym on the other side of town, all the motivation and dopamine hits that were there at the start may soon wear thin from the friction of a challenging environment.
Tie the habit to a temptation
However, sometimes the path of least resistance isn’t an option. That is where temptation bundling comes in.
Wood used an example from her own life. She once loved to run outside – it felt free, adventurous and rewarding. But over time, the impact on her joints made long outdoor runs not very feasible. So, she said, she bought an elliptical to keep in her home.
The only problem was that she hated using it. All the joy she got from running was removed in her new, lower-impact option, and she rarely got on the machine.
That is when it’s useful to tie the habit you are working to build with an activity you might otherwise restrain yourself from indulging in, Wood recommended.
Now she is on the elliptical regularly, she said, because she allows herself to watch the TV shows or read the fun novels – which she would normally not be able to justify spending time engaging with – when she is on the machine.
It’s an example of how joy, planning and convenience come together to build better habits.