Breaking bad habits
When you experience something pleasurable or stress-relieving, your brain is flooded with a neurotransmitter called dopamine. This is our feel-good chemical. Bad habits and even addictive behavior is strongly associated with our dopamine levels.
Even something as simple as biting your nails when you’re under stress can release dopamine. And in cases like this the repetitive action, and the associated dopamine release, give rise to a sense of relief. So when we’re stressed, the brain seeks to repeat these actions. It then becomes an automatic response. The stimulus (stress) and response (nail biting) become tied together.
Mindfulness practice activates the prefrontal cortex and cools down the amygdala. The amygdala being responsive for the way we act to stimuli thus promoting our fear reactions . This allows us to widen the space between stimulus and response, opening the possibility for choice and allowing us to access possibilities and opportunities we were less aware of before.
That’s a crucial step when it comes to breaking our bad habits. The ability to step back, and recognize the various options that are open to us in the moment.
For most of us, the habits we’d like to come away from, such as procrastination are pretty obvious. However, there is a pervasive habit most of us suffer from which is much less obvious. That’s the tendency to slip into mindless automaticity. The tendency to become disengaged from what’s in front of us. This is known as an automatic pilot.
We need to focus on the present in order to excel and make progress with our learning. Schools reward repetition. And that can become a problem when students are faced with things that are unusual or outside their control.
The same techniques that can help us deconstruct repetition when learning something new can also help us to break the habits we’d like to change. Over time, the triggers that drive our habitual behavior tend to become invisible to us. And we become so used to the habitual response to those triggers that we generally don’t even notice. Mindfulness training helps us to recognize a trigger. That gives us at least a chance to better manage our response.
Many people try to handle a bad habit by stopping themselves in the act, but by this point, most often, some of the damage has already been done. Stopping ourselves in the act, whilst helpful, doesn’t address the deeper-underlying cause.
Learning better habits
The same triggers that cause bad habits can be reassigned to operate as beneficial habits instead. Once we learn to recognize a trigger we can also learn to respond differently. For example, we might be unaware of the full extent of our unhelpful thinking habits when learning a new language. Once we have that increase awareness we are able to put things in place.
Mindfulness practice can powerfully open us up to the possibility of choice – of learning to do things differently enabling you to become a more efficient language learner.