Retraining the Brain

It’s a scientific fact: Just as someone cutting across a lawn leaves visible marks of his passage in the grass, every thought you give heed to makes an electrochemical “path” as it wends its way through your brain. And just as a repeatedly trampled section of grass becomes an obvious dirt pathway after enough feet follow the originator’s lead, a way of thinking frequently repeated soon becomes the path that all future thoughts in the same vein gravitate to automatically.

That’s good when it helps you learn a new skill or develop a positive habit. It’s not so good when the habit that establishes itself is one you’d be better off without. We all know people who can always find something to complain about; or who can’t be trusted with an unguarded dessert tray even though they moan over the miseries of obesity; or who have lost most of their friends by constantly opening mouth and inserting foot. Perhaps you can see your own self in one of the above; almost certainly, everyone reading this has at least one habit that regularly ends in “when will I ever learn” situations.

There are three simple–notice I didn’t say “easy”–steps to breaking a bad habit:

  1. Commit to saying “no” whenever the impulse presents itself.
  2. Decide what you will do instead at such times. (This very important part is frequently overlooked; if it’s neglected, the inevitable result is proving that there’s a limit to how long one can simply stare at a piece of chocolate cake without eating it.) Will you munch on a carrot stick instead of lighting a cigarette; turn on some classical music instead of surfing the Internet for questionable sites; repeat a prayer instead of biting your nails?
  3. Take action on the above as many times as necessary.

For some people and some habits, that’s all it takes. However, while just about anybody can succeed by some methods some of the time, nobody can succeed by even the simplest and best-proven method all of the time. About 80 to 90 percent of people trying to break a serious chemical habit will “fall off the wagon” or even be “knocked back to square one” at one time or another–sometimes years later. The same no doubt holds true for people with less rigidly-monitored-for-total-abstinence struggles, whether the problem be overeating, a sarcastic tongue, or too much time spent with TV soap operas.

Most psychologists agree that, like a scar that fades with the years but never becomes completely invisible, the mental channels worn by established habits are impossible to totally obliterate. Temptations you haven’t thought about for months can reassert themselves when life suddenly turns up the stress. A former alcoholic will almost inevitably have a stronger “gotta have more” reaction to her first drink in years than will someone who never had a drinking problem. At such times, “won’t I ever learn” despair–and the desire to kill the pain with more of the same bad habit–can strike with almost unbearable power, making the frustration and agony experienced when first quitting seem like a gentle massage.

Old or new, the road to abstinence or moderation will sooner or later jolt whomever travels it into a lament reminiscent of St. Paul in Romans 7:14-25: “I don’t really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don’t do it. Instead, I do what I hate. … I want to do what is good, but I don’t. I don’t want to do what is wrong, but I do it anyway. … Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death?”

We can actually be thankful when we hit that point, for it reminds us that we are not all-powerful, nor in total control, nor expected to personally shoulder the full weight of “getting it right.” There is One stronger than us Who stands by ready to help and support us through our struggle, to help us up no matter how many times we fall. When we truly appreciate the blessing involved here, though the pain of struggle may continue, we can rejoice and say with Paul:

“Thank God! The answer [to all our mental battles and aching conscience] is in Jesus Christ our Lord.”

For additional, secular-but-helpful, insights on quitting bad habits, see the Psychology Today article The New Quitter.”

Leave a comment


  1. janetanncollins

     /  October 2, 2015

    Thanks for this good advice.

  2. Jo Swank

     /  October 6, 2015

    Thanks, Kathy. As always, insightful and sound.


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