The Mindful Approach to Breaking Habits

2021 is upon us and perhaps you’ve committed to a New Year’s Resolution. Like many resolutions before, I’m tackling the smoky spectre of nicotine addiction, but this year I’m taking a different tack.   

I’ve spent the festive break immersing myself in mindfulness practice (specifically following the ‘Waking Up’ app mindfulness training programme from Sam Harris) and reading a lot on the topic.

A book that resonated with me is ‘The Craving Mind’ by Judson Brewer M.D., Ph.D.

In the following blog, I’ll share some of what I’ve learned, more to spark your curiosity than to provide a step-by-step instruction on how to break whatever habit haunts you.

Let’s start with the basics – habits are difficult to break. This will probably be self-evident to us all. Whether our latest attempt at cutting out sugary snacks has gone downhill, or we’re bugging flatmates for a cigarette after swearing off them (whilst dramatically casting the contents of an almost full pouch of rolling tobacco down the very real, non-proverbial, toilet…)

Brewer asserts that mindfulness in the West has become a term synonymous with meditation and self-care, but for him it comes down to science. Brewer says that mindfulness as a concept has been hijacked by misunderstanding and hype. For instance, many believe that the goal of mindfulness is to empty your head of all thoughts. That’s a difficult thing to do, and if you’ve tried mindfulness under that assumption, Brewer states that you’re destined for disappointment. 

Mindfulness is actually about paying close attention to our thoughts and behaviours, not trying to rid ourselves of them. When we pay careful attention, mindfulness helps us clearly see the costs and benefits of any given situation. Mindfulness can help us overcome anxiety, cravings, and addictions, according to Brewer. For example, one study demonstrated a 48 per cent reduction in anxiety among participants after completing an evidence-based mindfulness training program. Brewer cites many other examples of success not only with anxiety, but also with smoking, social media use, and overeating.

Brewer argues that the effectiveness of mindfulness is rooted in neuroscience. Our brains are wired based on the most evolutionarily conserved learning processes—the reward-based learning system. This system has three steps: trigger, behaviour, and reward. For example, we see food and our brain says, “Calories! Survival!” Secondly, we have the behaviour: we eat the food. Finally, our bodies send a signal to our brains – something like, “Remember what you’re eating and where you found it”

We form what behavioural scientists call a context-dependent memory and learn to repeat this process next time. See food, eat food, feel good. Trigger, behaviour, reward. Brewer states that with time, however, the reward becomes so enticing that we no longer eat only when we’re hungry, but also when we’re stressed, bored, or even tired. Before long, overeating becomes a habit that can be incredibly difficult to break.

Choosing to act differently when stressed is particularly difficult in today’s world, complete with modern marvels like refined sugars and cigarette additives. We’re constantly bombarded by stimuli designed to make us crave and consume, stimuli that commandeer the reward-based learning system that evolved in our brains for our survival.

So why can’t we just control ourselves and decide to create new habits? After decades of promotion, the doctrine of self-control continues to dominate even though research shows that the brain networks associated with self-control, such as the prefrontal cortex, are the first to go ‘offline’ when faced with triggers such as stress.

Experientially, we’re all probably familiar with this to some degree: I know I’m much more likely to annihilate a packet of biscuits or rapidly work my way through a pouch of tobacco when I’m stressed, regardless of any prior commitments to the contrary. The self-control rhetoric is likely just as familiar. Want to lose weight? Quit eating junk food. Want to stop smoking? Go cold turkey or get some nicotine patches to wean yourself off smoking. According to Brewer, this just doesn’t work in real life.

Enter mindfulness. Brewer promotes it as a tool to tap into the reward-based learning system to ‘hack’ and rewire our brains, so that we can tackle unwanted behaviours and overcome even the most pervasive, engrained habits. By paying close attention to all aspects of our conscious experience, we can start to notice the push and pull of cravings.

For example, in Brewer’s lab, smokers completed mindfulness training where they were taught breath awareness and how to pay attention to habit triggers and actions. The participants in this study reported a greater awareness of why they smoked, the behaviours they could substitute for smoking, and just how disgusting cigarette smoke smelled and tasted when they just paid attention. The study reported that mindfulness training was five times more effective than the existing ‘gold standard’ pharmacological approach to helping people quit smoking.

Practically, for me, when I experience the craving to smoke, I stop and pay close attention to how I feel in that moment. Cravings often cause us to behave like we’re on autopilot, and a lot of the research cited by Brewer shows that using willpower alone to resist them simply doesn’t work.

Blaming reward-based eating, for example, on lack of willpower ignores our underlying biology and the social and cultural contexts in which these behaviours develop. Only when we stop relying on willpower and recognise that we’re about to reach for that second piece of cake can we start to gain control and make a change.

With the simple act of paying close attention in the moment, we give our brains accurate and updated information. Awareness, or mindfulness, makes sure the reward value is accurately updated in our brain. However, Brewer states that this is only part of the solution.

The next step, he argues, to creating sustainable, positive habit change is to find a new reward that is more rewarding than the existing behaviour. Instead of just going along with a craving to smoke, or eat a cake, to counteract a negative emotion like stress, he advocates substituting curiosity about the craving itself as a new behaviour.

The reward value is tangibly different. Curiosity feels better than craving. It opens us up, instead of anchoring us to some frenzied drive to consume. Curiosity is obviously much more enjoyable than the self-blame and rumination that often accompanies the habits we’re trying break.

To tap into curiosity, Brewer advocates a simple mantra: ‘What does this craving feel like?’

I’m still a novice when it comes to mindfulness practice, but it’s already helped me to implement significant behaviour change around smoking, without crutching on my usual arsenal of nicotine patches, inhalators, lozenges, and gum. I’ve touched on some big ideas here, and I’m not entirely sure I’ve done them justice, so if you’re interested, I’d recommend listening to ‘Judson Brewer – Mindfulness and Addiction’: a conversation with Sam Harris, available on the ‘Waking Up’ app (and probably elsewhere if you’re wily!) There’s also Brewer’s book, which delves into this topic in much greater detail and presents a lot of interesting research to support the arguments presented.

Happy New Year to all, and good luck with whatever habit you might want to flush down the proverbial toilet.


Karl O’Shea

Service User Participation Lead – Youth Services


Posted on: 13th January 2021

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