Habit-Making, Habit-Breaking

Maze inside of outline of a head

Who hasn’t struggled to gain and keep good habits— and break negative ones?

Take comfort: we are not alone. The apostle Paul expressed in Romans 7: 15-20, “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”

Though we are redeemed by Christ, most of us still wage the habit battle.

Debates about the causes and cures for a life of virtue or vice have been a favorite topic among theologians and psychologists for millennia. Within the last two decades, neuroscientists have also joined the sparring. By understanding how habits are formed and broken from any or all of these perspectives—the spiritual, psychological, and physiological reading of our inner battles—we can attempt to change bad actions to good ones; to reverse daily defeats into lasting triumphs; and to better love others, God, and even ourselves, with the grace of God.

Habit According to the Scientists 

In The New York Times journalist Charles Duhigg’s recent book, The Power of Habit, Duhigg references a study on rats by MIT researchers in the early 1990s, in which the rats were placed in a small maze with chocolate at one end. Researchers then inserted probes into the rats’ brains.

Their findings shed light on the source of habit: the probes mapped the part of the brain that was responsible for the rats’ eventual internalization of the route to the chocolate. The culprit: the basal ganglia, a small circular part found also in fish, reptiles, and other mammals.

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Ann Graybiel, MIT neuroscientist and National Medal of Science winner, is an expert in habit formation. She focuses her studies on this root organ of brain function—responsible for habit-keeping of all varieties, great and small, good and bad.

“The problem is that your brain can’t tell the difference between bad and good habits,” Graybiel told Duhigg, “so if you have a bad one, it’s always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.”

The fact that bad habits are always “lurking” in the basal ganglia is the crux of the habit-breaking problem. “This tiny, ancient neurological structure seemed to take over as the rat ran faster and faster and its brain worked less and less,” wrote Duhigg. “[It] was central to recalling patterns and acting on them. The basal ganglia, in other words, stored habits even while the rest of the brain went to sleep.”

In the Loop of the Root Organ 

The basal ganglia converts actions into automatic routines, a process called “chunking.” Our root organ is using this amazing skill when we brush our teeth or get dressed, for example, in its quest to save energy to devote toward more complex tasks. To put it simply, this is how habits form.

In short, our brains look for a cue, or stimulus, to highlight which learned pattern to use automatically, and this can develop into a physical, mental, or emotional routine. What is key about this process, why that neural pathway carves its groove in our gray matter, has everything to do with the chocolate at the end of the maze: the reward.

The better the reward, the more our brains figure that the specific “loop” is worth remembering.

“Over time, this loop—cue, routine, reward; cue, routine, reward—becomes more and more automatic,” Duhigg explained.

Here’s the problem, and it’s a huge one: once the habit loop is formed, it never dies. This marvel of the human body creates efficiency so we don’t have to think about how to put the key into the ignition, but habit loops also form when we don’t want them to, around really bad behaviors. And these loops can severely damage our lives, families, and, when we’re all addicted to bad loops, entire societies.

“The discovery of the habit loop reveals a basic truth: when a habit emerges, the brain stops fully participating in decision-making,” Duhigg explained. “So unless you deliberately fight a habit—unless you find new routines—the pattern will unfold automatically.”

Feeling the Impact 

PLNU alumna Tasha Wright went on to study as a Ph.D. student in psychology at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee. While going through her graduate program she looked at the neurological effects of addictive substances such as alcohol and marijuana. In particular, she had taken a look at the ways in which these substances change the way our brains process information and how drugs impact cognitive functions.

According to Wright, one of the periods of most significant growth and development for our brains occurs between the ages of 12 and 25. This is one of the times when our brains are most vulnerable to the changes in neurological tissue caused by addictions. Studying middle-aged adults who often began using alcohol at these ages, Wright documented the effects substance abuse had on their brains later on, after at least one year of abstinence.

“These people’s emotional coping levels were way off base. The alcohol had permanently damaged their stress processing skills,” Wright explained. “When presented with a scenario where stress was introduced, we found that the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, was hyper-activated or overreacting.”

Addictive substances damage our brain’s ability to process emotions. 

In another study, Wright found participants who habitually smoked marijuana had likely damaged the emotional sensors in their brains as well, as measured through increased self-reported anxiety. The irony is that while one of the most common reasons individuals cite for using the drug is to decrease anxiety, its use in reality decreased the ability to practice coping skills in the long run. In turn, users developed a reliance on the drug.

In short, what Wright noticed is how addictive substances damage our brain’s ability to process emotions.

“These substances change the way you feel,” she said. “In my undergraduate studies, I learned that pornography actually changes a person’s capability of arousal, for instance. We somehow believe these behaviors or substances will make us feel better, and as a culture, we’re looking for happiness. But nowhere in Scripture does Jesus talk about happiness. Instead, we’re told we will experience suffering. It’s not only about what we feel; it’s what we actually do that seems to matter.”

Wright’s research and beliefs have influenced her own personal choices.

“Alcohol, like many addictions, diminishes intellectual abilities, working memory, impulse control, and cognitive abilities,” she shared. “As a Christian, I believe my brain is a gift God has given me. We’re all one in the Body of Christ, and I believe in treating my body well so I can better use it to love others.”

Habit According to Psychologists 

If you’ve ever actually tried breaking habits, you know it’s not just hard—it’s really hard.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist, devotes his research to answering questions of habit keeping and habit-breaking from a moral point of view, considering how our “moral mind” functions. A professor of ethical leadership at the NYU-Stern School of Business, Haidt is the author of The New York Times bestseller, The Happiness Hypothesis.

To simplify the problem of habit, Haidt illustrates this ancient complexity through the image of a rider and an elephant.

Imagine that the “rider” of an enormous elephant represents our consciousness and reason, the “controlled” thoughts in our brains, which take place in the frontal cortex.

The “elephant” in this analogy represents everything else: our emotions, gut instincts, and intuition, which together comprise most of the “automatic” system, including the infamous basal ganglia.

Think about driving to work or to a friend’s house. Almost everything is automatic: breathing, signaling, avoiding collisions, even getting irritated at the guy driving too slow.

When you try to break a habit, your controlled responses of the rider (that are conscious and deliberate) are in conflict with your unconscious, automatic system (the elephant). Picture your rider exhaustively trying to redirect your elephant. The elephant is much stronger, needless to say.

If you’ve ever actually tried breaking habits, you know it’s not just hard—it’s really hard. 

What or who tames that elephant? Our willpower alone?

“It’s hard for the controlled system to beat the automatic system by willpower alone; like a tired muscle, the former soon wears down and caves in, but the latter runs automatically, effortlessly, and endlessly,” Haidt explained.

Unfortunately, according to Haidt, the elephant is not only stronger, but also woefully pessimistic. “Over and over again, psychologists find that the human mind reacts to bad things more quickly, strongly, and persistently than to equivalent good things,” he wrote.

This initial, elephantine impulse toward negativity explains why we wake up irritable, speak unkindly to our spouses, doubt or distrust others, worry, or act out of fear.

It’s why bad habits are really hard to break.

Addiction Behind the Pulpit 

Rev. Ron Fay, PLNU director of church relations, has met with church leaders struggling with habits of viewing pornography—a growing trend in the church.

“There are a significant number of pastors who have resigned because of moral failures, many of which can be traced back to issues with pornography,” Fay explained. “We haven’t had a single district where there hasn’t been at least one pastor who’s been involved in some sort of inappropriate sexual conduct. It’s very prevalent.”

Fay is the key organizer for the Pastors and Leaders Conference (PALCON), and for the 2014 conference held at PLNU, he chose moral failure and restoration as one of the topics because it was so well-received in past seminars. Internet pornography is an important issue in many moral failures in ministry, he said.

According to Fay, this type of addiction can begin with a moment of weakness or a simple glance at a pop-up advertisement—making it perhaps even more tempting than other types of sexual conduct.

The nature of a pastor’s personal life can also be a contributing factor.

“The fact that many people in ministry feel lonely and express isolation in their ministerial positions, because of having to carry the burdens of many people in their church, might make them even more susceptible to this habit, which then can become an addiction,” shared Fay.

Shame and fear are powerful factors that silence those struggling in the ministry. According to Fay, many pastors will not disclose their habits of viewing pornography for fear of losing their jobs, their friends, and even their families.

A man in a maroon button down is kneeling in front of an altar. His head is bowed and his arms are extended in prayer.

“There’s a shame, a feeling of being unholy, an unworthiness that happens inside them, and they resolve to consider themselves failures,” Fay noted. “Even if they have preached about God’s grace and forgiveness, when it comes to themselves, some don’t apply their own ministry to their personal lives. They’re too ashamed to get help. They think it’s unforgivable, but it’s not. With honest confession, repentance, and help, ministers’ lives, just like the lives of those not in the ministry, can be restored. In fact, restoration can cause their relationship with God to grow much deeper than it ever was.”

Severe depths of shame lead to new depths of receiving forgiveness—and for Fay, this is wonderful.

Many pastors have come to Fay to talk privately about their struggles and to seek his advice, which almost always includes his recommendation to enter into community with others and gain professional counseling. Counseling centers and retreat centers are open to pastors as safe places to recover and restore their lives and habits, while often still continuing their ministries. One such center, Psychological Counseling Services (PCS) in Scottsdale, Ariz., is run by PLNU alumnus and author of The Pornography Trap, Dr. Ralph Earle.

Internet addiction may be an extreme, albeit common, addiction—but we all struggle with challenges, especially many college-age students living away from home, having to manage their studies, social lives, and health for the first time.

Habits in Our Words 

Melanie Wolf, PLNU director of discipleship ministries, helps students develop healthy habits and break negative ones through conversations about spiritual formation and discipleship. Wolf strongly believes that having discussions with students face-to-face—forming intentional community—is a necessary component to changing habits.

Specifically, Wolf believes the language we repeatedly use about ourselves and in our communities informs what we believe, how we see ourselves, and ultimately, how we treat others.

“For a lot of students who sit in this office, their natural responses to situations can be negative,” shared Wolf. “Getting unstuck out of the negative loop is the first step and we naturally want to replace it with the most perfect thing, so we end up extending the life of the negative when we don’t need to. I tell them, ‘First, just do something different, and then we can talk about what would be the most ideal.’ We need to stop the tapes we have on repeat, and then replace them.”

The language we repeatedly use about ourselves and in our communities informs what we believe, how we see ourselves, and ultimately, how we treat others.

Wolf talks to students about spiritual disciplines they can use to break habit loops. One of these disciplines involves short, simple prayers that can be said naturally in rhythm with breathing. Wolf believes this spiritual practice can serve to connect the different parts of ourselves, our minds and bodies, our thoughts and actions.

The practice can help especially when anxiety or fear sets in, she said, as those emotions can drive us to take refuge in bad habits.

“Say someone has a very broken relationship with a parent, and knows as soon as that parent calls, negative internal experiences are going to happen,” Wolf explained. “What would happen if instead of allowing all those negative thoughts to start, even before you answered the phone, you began to pray just with your breath: ‘God you love me. You created me. I know that.’”

Habits in Our Actions 

Changing the words we use—revising old tapes with new language—is essential, but how much does language influence our actions?

In his dissertation, Values and Identities in Prosocial and At-Risk Youth: The Role of Value Endorsement, Value Salience, and Moral Identity in Behavior, Dr. Ross Oakes Mueller, PLNU professor of psychology, focuses on adolescent care (or moral) exemplars, adolescents who exemplified morality in their daily lives and decisions. In his research, Oakes Mueller discovered some interesting findings about the relationship between language and virtuous habit formation.

The study examined individuals considered to have strong characters and morality; specifically, Oakes Mueller examined the language these adolescents used to describe themselves and their actions. Each of these “moral exemplars,” the study showed, used value-based language to talk about themselves.

“We found that moral exemplars automatically, habitually interpret the world in moral terms,” explained Oakes Mueller. “If there’s a piece of paper on the ground, someone could interpret it aesthetically as ugly. A moral chronic, someone who chronically sees the world in terms of morality, would see it as an opportunity to serve or fail to serve. They see the world in terms of opportunities for compassion, and this is habituated by the language they use about themselves and with others.”

Does new language form new habits then, or do new habits form our new view of the world and ourselves?

We all filter reality differently. According to Oakes Mueller, if we want to build a new schema, to develop new language about our reality and ourselves—different from our upbringing or culture—it requires a new, habitual way of acting.

“Aristotle would suggest it’s not only about learning the language but actually doing practices,” said Oakes Mueller. “Learning to be compassionate to the homeless isn’t just about learning a theology or a philosophy that says ‘this is an important thing to do,’ but to become virtuous, you have to do it. A lot of times the doing comes before the knowing: you can’t really know it without doing.”

Oakes Mueller referenced a 2003 study by psychologists Michael W. Pratt, Bruce Huntsburger, S. Mark Pancer, and Susan Alisat called A Longitudinal Analysis of Personal Values Socialization: Correlates of a Moral Self-Ideal in Late Adolescence, in which the researchers learned “those who participated in community service, or ‘helping behaviors,’ showed a greater increase in their moral identities over time.”

Good or moral habit-formation, then, requires both learning to renew our mind and acting according to what we know to be true.

The Habit of Embodying Christ in Community 

Early Nazarenes embraced a vision to help individuals suffering with addiction, specifically alcoholism, in their pursuit of holiness, pledging abstinence themselves and support for those still struggling. By placing ourselves in the Body of Christ, in a new environment and in community, we open ourselves up to the possibility of forming new habits.

Another powerful approach for combating addiction is the “12-step” method created by Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). According to Duhigg, this organization discovered we can unlock bad habits and addictions through two essential keys, the same held by the Nazarenes: belief and community.

Six friends sit on the sand, facing the ocean in front of them. They all have their arms wrapped around each other.

Mark Mann, PLNU director of the Wesleyan Center, has studied Wesleyan notions of holiness and the process of sanctification, including studies in neuroscience, to understand how we as embodied beings form what Wesley called “holy tempers”—that is, good habits. In his writings, Mann has studied the connection between the 12-step program format and early Wesleyan ideas and practices.

“Twelve-step fellowships are about building on a fundamental belief, restricting the behavior, and restructuring the thinking in a communal context,” said Mann. “Consider an alcoholic in recovery who sees a commercial for alcohol that tempts him. He’s been taught through participation in the program to call his sponsor and tell that person, ‘I really want to have a drink.’ By calling the sponsor, the alcoholic has started to create a new synaptic connection in his brain, a new habit, which can be met with the reward of interpersonal connection.”

Mann explained that Wesley believed small groups were vital for this very reason (and it’s the same reason Wesley’s groups inspired the early development of AA): a community of faith has power. It’s a setting in which those holy tempers— patterns of behavior that reflect Christlikeness —can be established in our lives.

“What Wesley understood was that if we are to live lives of perfect love for God and neighbor, such virtue needs to be fostered and habituated within a community of like-minded believers,” Mann explained.

Quoting Hebrews 10:24, Mann added, “‘… let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing… ’ Jesus gathered a group of disciples around Him so they could be gradually transformed in their habits of thinking and acting, through their encounters with Him. Ultimately, it’s God who transforms both our habits and convictions over time, convictions wherein we realize ‘I can’t do this on my own. Doing it on my own has led to self-destruction and harm toward others.’”

Overcoming Habits by His Love 

Negative habits and addictions can isolate us, oftentimes perpetuated by feelings of shame or guilt. We doubt if we can be vulnerable and accepted. We might fear losing our jobs or our families.

But there is hope in the love, grace, and mercy of God.

God’s power is made perfect in weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9). As Christ saves, He continues to provide us with His grace to better love Him and others as we love ourselves.

Whether we are struggling with an addiction or know of someone who is, we are the Body of Christ, and together, we are called to love: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35).

Helping Others Overcome Habits 

If you are interested in the psychology of helping navigate the habits which can control people's lives at times, the first step into this specialized field is through earning your master's degree. At PLNU, we offer a Master's in Clinical Counseling which prepares students to become licensed marriage and family therapists (LMFT) or licensed professional clinical counselors (LPCC). If you would like to learn more, please contact us or take the next step in your career and apply today.

About the Author 

Wendy Cloherty is a former editor for PLNU's Viewpoint magazine and a contributing freelance writer.