In November I wrote a post-titled Second Nature. I talked about how I finally felt like the choice to not drink alcohol was almost done without thinking now. However, I was surprised that it took over 6 months to feel like I had really made a significant habit change. I thought breaking a pattern or habit would happen much quicker. I thought my brain would be rewired after 6 months.
At the beginning of my yearlong journey, I talked a lot about potential challenges, discomfort, and anxiety. Many of my posts were motivational in nature and discussed grit, perseverance, changing my mindset, drive, and focusing on self-control. I had to celebrate the small victories and focus on all my “firsts” without alcohol and how I got through them. I talked about drinking mocktails and energy drinks as my replacement beverages, and how I would change my paradigm about alcohol and social settings.
As I got further into my journey, I talked about difficult and stressful times that typically would have triggered drinking, FOMO (the fear of missing out) and how it was challenging my self-control. I discussed resisting temptation when I wanted to hit the pause button on the challenge. I acknowledged Sultana’s guilt from drinking near beers during a vacation. I was feeling critical and losing steam because I thought things would be easier at this point.
Then, halfway through the journey a shift happened.
It was like a switch flipped and everything got easier. I recognized all of the new activities I was doing, how much better I felt, and I noticed I wasn’t thinking about my goal so much anymore. I had switched my thinking from how far I’ve come to how close I am to meeting my goal. I felt like I was on autopilot and successfully changing my lifestyle. I moved from “I can’t” drink alcohol to I “don’t” drink alcohol. This change in mindset is blunt and clear. The powerful word “Don’t” sends the important message to my brain on what to follow.
I am almost at the end of my goal. I am 85 days away from hitting my final milestone! I have been enjoying moving through the journey on autopilot the past few months, but at the same time I am still seeing progress and recognizing new shifts in habits and behaviors.
I mentioned to Rick this week that I noticed I have not been drinking energy drinks, juice mocktails, and sodas very much anymore. Those were my replacement drinks in the first half of this challenge. I started thinking about it when I realized I had lost 4 pounds and reflected on what was different. The two of us are very in tune with one another because he said he was thinking about the exact same thing the other day. He noticed that he hasn’t been drinking his Langers mint/cucumber lemonade with club soda replacement drink. He hasn’t been drinking Diet Pepsi as much. We discussed that we no longer have intense sugar cravings like we did the first 3 months. He lived on ice cream, and I lived on gummy bears and jolly ranchers. I love that not only is it easy for me to give up alcohol these days, but I have also started to break some of my replacement habits and create new ones.
The Habit Loop
When you have a bad habit, you feel like you are being rewarded for it in some way. You have to figure out a replacement habit that offers the same reward without the downside of your bad habit. Charles Duhigg shared the “Habit Loop” concept in his book, Power of Habits. He explains that habits consist of three parts: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Once you figure out each part, you can create ways to avoid or replace those habits. For example, one of my habit loops happens frequently at work. Around 1:30 p.m. I get really fatigued and desire sugar. This is my cue. I then go into my desk drawer and get out a single jolly rancher. This is my routine. The jolly rancher gives me a temporary sugar rush and energy boost and the sweetness makes me feel like I am enjoying a small dessert. This is my reward. Realistically, I probably should not be having a jolly rancher at that time. Rather, I should be coming up with a healthier alternative routine to satisfy my fatigue cue. The habit loop is incredibly powerful and is hardwired in our psyches and explains why habits are hard to shake.
I have learned that being persistent and patient is the key to success in this journey. I have been consistent, driven, and demonstrated will power and self-control. This is important because it takes time for new patterns to replace the old. It takes time for new brain connects to kick in and for old brain-firings to calm down.
Habits actually change the wiring in your brain
Our neurons will gradually create a new connection that will become a pattern when the behavior is fostered consistently. Some researchers at Duke University did an interesting study on how habits actually change the wiring in your brain. They studied the brains of mice that had developed a habit of pressing a lever to get a sugary treat and the brains of untrained mice. They discovered there are two pathways in the part of the brain called the Striatum that carry opposing messages. One pathway carries a “go” signal, which encourages action. The other pathway is a “stop” signal. They found the trained mice activate the “go” signal first which shows that when behaviors are repeated, the go trigger becomes strong and activated when prompted. The sugar addicted mice lost the ability to regulate their behavior. The untrained mice were better at resisting because their “stop” signal came first.
I think this study applies directly to my yearlong booze snooze. Essentially I have been reducing my exposure to drinking, which has been slowly reducing the capacity of the “go” signal to want or need to drink in my brain. Every single day that I choose to abstain from alcohol, the “go” signal isn’t reinforced as much. Since the “go” signal does not activate often, the habit becomes weak over time. This is why I feel like I have changed my lifestyle and I no longer have a desire to drink alcohol in the same ways I used to.