good habits and bad habits

It could be that both good habits and bad habits share the same cause, which is the urge to do the habit.

There’s no scientific consensus on the best way to create or break a habit and many struggle to form good habits and break bad ones, including addictions. And when you consider addictions, theories on cause diverge even further. The only ones claiming to know causes of good and bad habits are those with solutions to sell.

Let’s step back and forget all we know about good habits and bad habits and look at how cause and effect are defined in medicine. I’m using the medical dictionary at freedictionary.com, for what it’s worth. A necessary cause is defined as an etiologic factor without which a result in question will not occur; the occurrence of the result is proof that the factor is operating.

In medicine, according to this particular dictionary, when studying the cause of disease, a thing that must occur before another thing becomes possible, constitutes a necessary cause. Considering good and bad habits, what must occur as a necessary cause?

The most obvious answer is: 

The urge to do the behavior associated with the good or bad habit. Without any urge or inner prompting to do the thing, the thing doesn’t get done. Can we safely say that both good and bad habits are caused by urges that well up within in us in such a way that makes the habitual action irresistible? Again, an urge is the prompt to act that comes (and must come) before taking action. No prompting – no urge – no action – no habit. We wouldn’t even know to behave in a habitual way without an urge or prompting to do so.

A fitness buff who describes himself as “addicted to working out” said what happens to him before heading to the gym:

It’s a burning desire – like a bunch of ants gets released inside me and it won’t let up until I’m at the gym, lifting. I feel so relaxed and alive after exercising. If I can’t make it to the gym that day, I’m miserable and all antsy.

A woman who bites her nails describes what she goes through while trying to resist:

The urge is overwhelming. My nails starting itching, like they want to be nibbled. If I try to resist, I start to get stressed, like the only way to get relief from the urge is to bite. And I always do.

A former heroine addicted talked about what came over her before using:

It’s like my whole personality suddenly changed and all I wanted to do was use. No matter how much I promised myself that I’d stay clean, I stopped caring about promises and forgot all about wanting to live clean when the urge to use struck. The only thing I knew in those hours was the urge to get high.

People with good habits and bad habits and even addictions describe similar urges. Compelling, virtually irresistible urges surface and take over, seemingly unwilling to relent until the targeted action is taken. If one were to merely focus on overcoming the urge, regardless of their trigger, wouldn’t that be a productive course of action?

Is there a way to reduce or eliminate the power of addictive urges?

Kathryn Hansen, author of the book Brain Over Binge, answers these questions with an unqualified yes. And she has a personal story, a six-year battle with bulimia, to back it. Brain Over Binge shows how traditional approaches, including extensive psychodynamic psychotherapy, were inadequate and perhaps counterproductive for Hansen. After discovering what Hansen believes to be a much simpler cause of bingeing behavior and learning how to neutralizes the urges, she recovered.

More on this topic from this blog coming soon.