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The Psychology of Habit Formation

All behaviours that are automatic are considered habits, so if you find that the first thing you do when you wake up is light a cigarette, you are likely to have a habit.

Habits are formed when behaviours are often repeated so they become second nature, so the good news is that through repetition, we can form and maintain healthy new habits to replace the bad ones.

If you repeat a certain action, there becomes a connection between the behaviour and the situation. When you find yourself automatically doing a certain action in a specific situation, you are more than likely to have a habit. An action becomes a habit if it can be caused by something in your environment, occurs regularly or occurs without a thought.

Addictions are difficult to break as we usually surround ourselves with people, paraphernalia or situations that trigger the behaviour that leads to the habit in the first place. Even though every pack of cigarettes has warnings printed of them showing the harmful and negative effects of smoking and even though we know exactly what smoking can do, some of us choose not to stop. Why? Because the reasons for smoking are mostly psychological.

A habit is learned through repetition, meaning for many smokers, there are cues that encourage the feeling of needing to smoke. For example, if someone was to light a cigarette every time they drank a cup of tea, they may associate the craving with having the cup of tea, forming a habit to smoke when drinking a cup of tea. The habits are made stronger due to the addiction of nicotine, which triggers dopamine release meaning that when cues that are associated with smoking are encountered, they become much more attention grabbing and powerful, causing a craving. This in line with evidence that smokers find it harder to overcome over-learned tendencies, can make it hard to resist the urge to smoke.

The psychology behind smoking suggests that people smoke for both the nicotine, and non-nicotine effects. But what is important to consider is that order to successfully quit smoking, you will need to identify the underlying cues and psychological reasons for smoking and tackle them first before quitting for good. First things first, you should keep a brief diary and jot down the time of day, how intense your cravings are (on a scale of 1-5), what you are doing at that moment, where you are, who you are with and how you feel, every time you feel the need to light a cigarette. After a couple of weeks, review your diary and identify your most powerful triggers, based on the intensity of your cravings. You’ll need to learn to outsmart your triggers before they strike so the best way is to change the parts of your routine that you associate with smoking. So, for example, if you associate drinking tea with smoking, switch to another drink and change the times throughout the day you would usually drink a cup of tea. The more thoroughly you change your routine, the easier it will be to stay clear of your triggers but for times where you can’t avoid changing your routine, you should prepare and have a plan for when cravings strike.

Each time you resist a trigger and don’t light a cigarette, you’ve lessened its power over you. Most cravings only last a few minutes and as you gradually get over them, you’ll be one step closer to a smoke-free life.

Our friendly advisors are here to help you identify the cues and underlying reasons for why you smoke, and are able to provide free, personal, one to one guidance and support on helping you quit. You can contact us today or sign up online to start your journey to becoming smoke-free and healthy.

How does this work?

The tailored approach LiveWell Dorset uses to come up with solutions to the things that are stopping us achieving our goals, is based upon work done by University College London developing the COM-B model of behaviour change. In this model, all behaviour is influenced by understanding a person’s capability to change, their opportunity to change and their motivation to change. By understanding which of these is the biggest barrier to change, we can tailor support accordingly. This model of behaviour change is at the centre of the support we offer, online and in person.

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