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The Science Behind How Habits Are Formed and How to Change Them

It can be tough to change poor habits when it comes to eating, exercise, work, drinking, and other behaviors. Therapy and behavior modification can be valuable tools when it comes to dropping habits that don’t serve you well and adopting new ones. Understanding the reasons for certain behaviors can make change easier and help you live a happier, healthier life. 

How Do Habits Form?

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Both good and bad habits form when you think, feel and act in a certain way over a length of time. The habits you develop aren’t just due to behavioral and environmental factors; they can have a basis in neuroscience as well. 

Behavioral Factors

Many decades of research have helped doctors and mental health providers determine three primary types of learned behavior. With classical conditioning, two stimuli are linked together to produce a learned response by association.

Operant conditioning shapes behavior with either positive or negative reinforcement. Developed by psychologist B.F. Skinner, it is the process of encouraging or discouraging behaviors with either reward or punishment. 

Observational learning, a social learning theory developed by psychologist Albert Bandura, portends people learn behaviors by observing and modeling others’ attitudes, emotions and behavior. In his research, he found babies and young children imitated the behavior of those around them. This is also true of some adults.


Scientific research has shown when neurons fire at the beginning and end of a specific behavior in the brain region, it becomes a habit. Over time, patterns form – both in behavior and in the brain – which can make it extremely difficult to break bad habits. The positive part of this is it also helps you develop good automatic habits like brushing your teeth or combing your hair.

How to Help Yourself

A key to start changing a habit is to do it before it hits a problematic tipping point. If you learn to regulate your behavior before it spirals and you feel like you’re out of control, it’s easier to not only survive, but thrive. Seeking therapy is just one piece of the puzzle that can help you better understand and change bad habits. 

Accountability can be another valuable tool in breaking bad habits. Studies have shown if you are held accountable to someone else for meeting a goal, your chance of success increases dramatically. For example, if you want to improve your diet and lose weight, having someone you trust as an accountability partner can make you more likely to succeed and achieve your goals. Positive reinforcement can also work well — if you’re trying to lose weight and give yourself a healthy reward, like a new outfit when you reach a goal, it can motivate you to keep going. 

Therapy is another great resource that will equip you with the tools you need to stay committed to changing your lifestyle and adopting better habits. Ready to learn how to break habits that may be holding you back? Contact a therapist at Kayenta to schedule an appointment.