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What Causes Habits?

Rethinking the reason we repeat certain behaviors.

When we think of habits, there are a few classic examples that come to mind: smoking, nail-biting, overeating. Those are overt habits. Then there are habits people might be less aware of such as repeatedly interrupting someone mid-sentence or driving a co-worker to insanity through incessant gum-popping.

There’s a lot of talk about habits these days but there isn’t a lot of discussion about the force behind these behaviors. Namely, what is the habit under the habit? What is the impetus that triggers a certain behavior? What makes someone want to light up a cigarette? What compels a person to interrupt someone who is still talking?

Tension is a very tricky thing. It is a common response to stimuli and it’s not just based on stress or anxiety. It’s part of our genetic makeup. We need muscular tension to hold ourselves upright. We also need fear since it’s a built-in mechanism designed to alert us of danger. But when fear or tension are overused, they lead to undesired habits.

When all is right with the world and the birds are chirping, the sky is a bright blue and people don’t cut us off on the road, our habits are in check. However, that’s not always the case.

Just the other day, I was behind a woman who was driving between two lanes. Slooooowly. And the light was about to change. And I couldn’t get in either lane. So I got tense — super tense — and honked at her.

I was rude. She didn’t care. I made the light. But, was it worth the tension?

If I had been a smoker, would that have made me want to light up? Maybe, but just because I’m not a smoker doesn’t mean that my body didn’t respond to that extra slice of unnecessary tension differently. After that incident, I felt my face get hot. I was mad, saying all sorts of not nice things. And what did I get out of that? A big fat nothing. Except for getting worked up.

The habit under my reaction to that woman’s driving was to respond with undue tension. In my case, it was visible in my anger. Another person may have responded by chewing their nails. Someone else might have run to the next person they saw and frantically relayed the story of what happened on the road without paying attention to an existing conversation that may have taken place at the same time.

Repeatedly responding to triggers with excessive tension is what feeds habits. That’s what all habits have in common. It is hard to catch that unknown habit before reacting with a more obvious one, but that’s the trick to stopping the habit from manifesting. Even if you repeat a habit over and over again, recognizing that first impulse to react is the first step in kicking that habit to the curb.


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