How And Why Habits Are Formed – Caroline Ferguson, Mindset Trainer

How And Why Habits Are Formed

By Caroline Ferguson | Habits

During our lifetime, we develop thousands of habitual ways of thinking, feeling and behaving. Habits – good and bad – are continually being formed, strengthened and weakened. But how does it happen, and why?

Remember those 100 billion neurons I mentioned when I wrote about how your mind works? Neurons have little projections, called dendrites, which make connections with thousands of other cells.

Whenever you do or think or feel anything, electro-chemical nerve impulses zip down a chain of interconnected neurons at up to 120 metres per second (nearly 270 miles per hour – your body is AMAZING!), leaping the gaps between dendrites.

When a nerve impulse travels down the same chain of neurons several times – as happens when you repeatedly think a particular thought or behave in a particular way – those neurons cement themselves together and form a ‘road’, which allows the repeated thought or action to happen easily and become automatic. Those roads are known as neural pathways.

Another word for a neural pathway is a habit.

The Emotion Factor

Repetition isn’t the only dynamic at play in the creation of habits. When you mix repeated thoughts and actions with emotions, the neural pathways develop more quickly and more deeply.

Whether what you’re feeling is positive or negative, the presence of emotion sends a signal to your unconscious mind: “This is important, pay attention.”

That’s one of the reasons why, when you fall head-over-heels in love with someone, you think about your beloved ALL THE TIME.

They come to mind often because the situation is new and stimulating. Your thoughts about the person lead to positive emotions such as interest, excitement, anticipation and love. Thinking about them quickly becomes a habit because there’s so much emotion attached to those thoughts.

Your body joins in by releasing feel-good chemicals that are as powerful as heroin, further cementing the idea in your brain that thinking about this person is A GOOD THING. So you think about them incessantly, deepening the habit.

The emotion factor is also why worrying can develop into such a strong habit.

Negative emotions have the same effect as positive ones, helping to embed habits deeply. Anxiety, fear, terror – call it what you will – is an evolutionary response whose purpose is to keep us alive.

When we lived in caves, there were many life-threatening situations to face. The classic ‘fight, flight or freeze’ anxiety response was designed to save our lives by stimulating us to use our fists, flee from dangerous situations, or play dead – whichever was most appropriate.

But, in the western world at least, there’s very little in our modern, day-to-day lives that is truly life-threatening. Most of us are fortunate enough not to have to live in caves and I haven’t noticed a sabre-tooth tiger padding the streets of my village.

These days, our major threats tend to come from ill-health, money worries, relationship and family problems, stressful jobs and the like. Our fear response hasn’t had time to adjust to these lesser threats, however, and some people experience anxiety that is out of proportion to modern situations.

Being concerned about something feels a little uncomfortable. When we experience the emotion of concern, our instinct is to find a solution.

When concern tips over into full-blown anxiety, though, we become paralysed. It’s a profoundly uncomfortable place to be. We feel hugely threatened and helpless.

If you have an anxiety habit, it’s possible that at some point, your concerns about the possibility of something bad happening were proved right. The bad thing happened. “I knew I was right to be worried”, you said to yourself. Your unconscious mind is constantly trying to find links and connections so it filed this information away.

After that, when another potentially concerning situation arose, your mind automatically switched to worry mode to try to prevent you from having another unpleasant experience.

Your unconscious mind didn’t know that 85% of what we worry about never actually happens – it was simply trying to save your life.

Or you may have been facing a period when several things were causing you concern and you felt under threat on many fronts. Pretty soon you found yourself feeling anxious all the time. When the crisis passed and there wasn’t any great reason for you to feel anxious, your mind couldn’t shake the worry habit and would actively look for things to feel anxious about – all in the name of ‘keeping you safe‘.

What your mind actually achieved was exactly the opposite of feeling safe, putting you in a state of constant high alert (the so-called  “fight, flight or freeze” state).

The emotion factor is also why comfort eating can exert such a strong grip.

When you eat a food that’s high in fat and sugar – such as cake, sweets or cookies – you can feel a brief “high” as the sugar hits your bloodstream. If this happens when you’re feeling unhappy or stressed, you can experience a temporary lift in mood.

Your unconscious mind files away this information and the next time you feel down, it sends a message to your body in the form of a craving for the kind of food that temporarily lifts your spirits. So you have a repeated behaviour paired with powerful emotions. Thus an emotional eating habit is formed.

Why, you ask, would your mind deliberately create a habit that’s not good for you?

Remember, your unconscious mind cannot distinguish between good and bad – it’s your conscious mind that makes these value judgements. The unconscious mind simply pays attention to anything that it believes will save your life – and feeling good comes into the life-saving category.

So how do you form a good habit?

Helpful habits are created in exactly the same way as bad habits – through repetition. Again, the habit can be imbedded more quickly and more strongly when repetition is combined with emotion.

Most habits are installed unconsciously, without you being aware that that’s what you’re doing. But you can also create a new habit deliberately and consciously.

Once you understand this, you can install a helpful new habit whenever you’re prepared to make the effort. These habits will take you in the direction in which you want to go, rather than sabotaging you, as your bad habits do.

Be aware that it probably won’t happen overnight. Habits that we deliberately create through repetition can take many weeks to embed properly.

Remember, if you visualise what you want to achieve and attach a positive emotion such as love, anticipation, pleasure or excitement to it, you’ll get there faster and the habit will be deeper.

Can you completely get rid of an old habits?

Once a neural pathway is formed, it’s there for life (which is why you never forget how to ride a bicycle, regardless of how little time you spend on two wheels). You can weaken old bad habits by choosing to build up a better habit, but you can’t get rid of them entirely.

For example, if you’ve ever been a smoker and given up, you’ll know that there’s no such thing as “just one puff”.  If you sneak a cigarette at a party, thinking “one won’t do me any harm”, it’s likely that, pretty soon, you’ll revert to being a smoker because you’ve reactivated a powerful old neural pathway.

This goes for other habits you’ve overcome. I’ve also worked with many people to help them kick the anxiety habit, only for them to come back to see me a couple of years later because they’ve retriggered themselves and are worrying again.

To keep from sliding back into bad old habits, you have to constantly reinforce the helpful new habits by practising them with energy and emotion. You need to really want the healthier, more helpful outcome and you need to commit to making the good habit your new reality.

TASK: Decide on a simple new habit that you’d like to form. It could be something like journaling every day, or drinking more water, or going for a walk each morning before you start work.

  1. Plan the actions that you will need to perform in order to establish the habit.
  2. Timetable those actions – do them every day if possible.
  3. Each morning, set a strong commitment to behave as if you already have that habit.
  4. Look forward to your daily practice, even if it feels like an effort at times. Make believe* that you’re excited by the activity and enjoy practising it.
  5. Keep a note in your Mindset Journal about how your attitude to the new activity changes over the coming days and weeks.
  6. Keep practising the behaviour, even when you don’t feel like doing it.

Within weeks, there will come a point where you don’t have to make yourself do it. Your mind and body will automatically factor it into your day.

Good luck, and keep me posted on how you get on by commenting below.

Next time, I’m going to write about your five functional zones, and how understanding which zone you’re in at any one time can help steer you towards your highest, more brilliant zone of accomplishment.


* I much prefer to use the phrase “make believe” over the one you commonly hear in this context, “fake it to make it“. This is for two reasons. “Fake” implies phony, whereas “make believe” is about using your imagination.

But, more importantly, I like the phrase “make believe” because you’re literally creating a new belief about what’s possible when you deliberately build a helpful new habit. You’re saying, “I am now a person who writes in her diary every day“.


About the Author

Caroline is a Mindset Trainer and speaker who works with sensitive, high-potential leaders who know they were born for something more. She shows them how to beat mindset blocks and habits, such as limiting beliefs, low self worth and procrastination, that are preventing them from making a bigger impact.

  • Robyn says:

    FINALLY! An explanation for my emotional eating!! This is one of the best explanations I have read and believe I have read hundreds! It’s a nasty habit! Well of course it is. Perhaps I can now start figuring out how to stop this terrible merry-go-round I have put myself on.

    Thanks for a great post!


    • admin says:

      Hi Robyn, thanks for your comments. Deciding you want to stop is the first step. When you do that, you’ve already made one change – and when you change one thing, you change everything.

      Try saying this affirmation with conviction every day: “I used to be someone who ate for comfort, but now I’m becoming someone who values herself and her body and chooses to enjoy eating in a healthy way. I’m excited about making my body my best home for life.” Combine that with visualising yourself fit and happy, eating (and enjoying) delicious, healthy food.

      If you do find yourself grazing, don’t beat yourself up. Just ask yourself “What am I really hungry for?” You’ll probably find that it’s comfort, attention, affection, desire to feel calmer, or similar. Think of how you could provide that for yourself. Good luck!

  • sarah says:

    Have printed this out to remind myself to continue with one change I made recently. 😉

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