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We Do What We Know Is Bad for Us, Why?

We Do What We Know Is Bad for Us, Why?

We all know what a bad habit is. Smoking, eating unhealthy foods, excessive alcohol consumption and living a sedentary lifestyle are just some of the things that are drummed into us as behaviours we ought to avoid in order to increase our overall well-being.

Yet a study by scientists at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that in the year 2000, avoidable behaviours such as poor diet, lack of exercise, smoking and drinking alcohol were some of the underlying causes of nearly half of the deaths in the United States:[1]

  • Tobacco: 435,000 (18.1% of total US deaths)
  • Inactivity and bad eating: 400,000 (16.6%)
  • Alcohol consumption: 85,000 (3.5%)

If we know bad habits are so detrimental to our health, why do we continue to do them?

Why we can’t resist bad habits

We all indulge in behaviours that we know aren’t good for us and there are a couple of reasons why we continue these habits regardless.

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Bad habits give you the comfort you need

The first is our need to feel comfort and doing whatever it takes to reach this state.

Every action you take has a purpose behind it, even if you’re not consciously aware of what this is and the most common hidden purpose is comfort. Our brains are wired to be reward-based and our ‘reward’ is the feeling of comfort that, in turn, triggers a release of dopamine or the ‘feel good’ hormone.[2] This causes us to crave more of it and so we associate this good feeling with the bad habit.

This explains why we continue to indulge in bad habits and find it hard to stop; it feels comfortable and we essentially get to exist in our ‘safe zone’. In other words, you get attracted to the reward despite knowing it’s bad for you.

Smoking that cigarette on your work breaks causes your brain to associate that habit with freedom from work and relaxing, or drinking alcohol may be associated with letting yourself go and having a good time after a hard week. The thought of exercising and making some kind of effort is overridden in the brain by the ‘easier’ thought of sitting on the couch and watching your favourite TV programme. So you can see how easily the habit is connected with reward.

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Everyone else is doing the bad habit too

We also tend to rationalize our bad behaviours if society as a whole finds it acceptable. If a vast amount of people are doing the same thing, then it must be okay for us to do it too. It’s not difficult to find socially acceptable bad habits. Snacking, skipping exercises and even smoking are things that lots of people do.

This causes an inward rationalisation when it comes to unhealthy habits such as “just one more won’t hurt” or “I’ll do better next week, I’ve just had a stressful day today”. These in-the-moment justifications tend to be driven by the guilt of knowing we’re probably not making the best decision in the long run.

We also look outwards for examples that validate our bad habit decisions such as “my grandfather smoked every day and lived until he was 90.” Our minds love to find evidence that backs up our decisions, whether good or bad.

The consequences of continuing bad habits

Most people know the consequences of these types of habits. Warnings are plastered on cigarette packets about getting cancer. Governments beam healthy eating campaigns and the need to be more active through adverts and TV programmes. But what are the real long term consequences of constant bad habits?

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  • Cancers, diseases and cell damage
  • Unhappiness and depression
  • Negative physical well-being leading to pain or lethargy
  • Increased physical problems in later life

Most of these can be subtle and gradual meaning we don’t notice them and easily dismiss our decisions in the moment. But being mindful of the decisions we make today can keep our wellbeing topped up and constant while investing in our future selves.

For more examples of common bad habits and how to should stop them, check out this article: 13 Bad Habits You Need to Quit Right Away

How to stop these bad habits

It’s hard to stop habits that are so ingrained in our daily lives. With stress sometimes being the main trigger to a bad habit, the solution lies with reprogramming our mind. I have covered this in my other article How to Program Your Mind to Kick the Bad Habit, here let me briefly talk about the solution:

  1. Frstly, be mindful of what these habits are and how often we do them. What exactly triggers the habit? Is it an unconscious decision to do it? Question why you have developed this habit in the first place.
  2. Secondly, make a commitment to yourself that you want to eliminate this bad habit. Now you understand what may be triggering it, can you find something positive to replace it? For example, you reach for the chocolate after a hard day. Can you find a healthier reward snack? Or reduce the amount of times you’re allowed to have chocolate? Perhaps if stress is your trigger, try going for a run and give the brain another reason to release dopamine instead.
  3. Thirdly, be consistent. The key to forming new habits is consistency. Yes, it’s hard for a while but your brain soon adapts to new ways of doing things until it starts to feel natural to you. Turn your reward system into a way to celebrate sticking to your new positive habits instead.

It’s all about conditioning yourself to a new, positive way of thinking.

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Living a happier, more positive life starts with the habits we choose to form. Be mindful of which direction your habits are pointing and start changing your mindset to one of investment into your health and well-being. It’s not just for your future self but also living in the moment in a positive and healthy way.

Featured photo credit: freestocks.org via pexels.com

Reference

[1] The Jama Network: Actual Causes of Death in the United States, 2000
[2] Neroscientifically Challenged: Know your brain: Reward system

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Brian Lee

Chief of Product Management at Lifehack

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Last Updated on May 16, 2019

Can You Stop Depression from Damaging Your Brain?

Can You Stop Depression from Damaging Your Brain?

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in America, according to the latest mental health statistics.[1] Approximately 17.3 million adults have had at least one major depressive episode.

In this article, we will take a deep look into depression, what a depression brain is like, and how to prevent the damage from depression.

What is Depression?

In order to tap into treatment options for depression, we must first examine what defines this disorder.

Apart from differing scientific and medical jargon, depression – also known as Major Depressive Disorder – is best categorized as a serious mood disorder.

While it is common, it is anything but innocent. The symptoms of depression have serious effects on daily living, and leave the afflicted person with an inability to carry out normal tasks, such as working, interacting with friends and family, and sleeping.

Depression itself is an umbrella term for a list of specific types of depression, such as Postpartum Depression, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (which leads into serious symptoms of depression), Bipolar Disorder, and Psychotic Depression (which is depression with symptoms of psychosis), just to name a few.[2]

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While everyone experiences moments of depression in their life, being clinically diagnosed with depression is usually done with the aid of medical help. This diagnosis typically relies on a baseline of depression symptoms that have been present for at least two weeks.

Symptoms of Depression

Because depression is categorized as a serious mood disorder, most symptoms will begin with a person’s behavior. A person may feel persistent sadness that simply won’t go away, or they may experience a loss of interest in activities that they once enjoyed, like gardening, traveling, or working out.

Other symptoms, although not a complete list, may persist:

  • Feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
  • Anxiety
  • Angry outbursts, followed by a complete mood change (from happy to sad in very quick shifts)
  • Struggles with insomnia or significant changes in sleep schedule
  • Inability and lack of desire to get out of bed in the morning
  • Significant decrease in personal hygiene, nutrition, and maintenance of their home or space
  • Decreased interactions with friends, family, or colleagues
  • Lack of energy and physical weakness, apathy, or pains and aches
  • Trouble concentrating on specific tasks or making decisions
  • Frequent thoughts about death, or even suicidal plans, thoughts, or attempts
  • Back pain and headaches

While this list is not complete or exhaustive to a person’s struggle with depression, it does provide a general picture of some of the common symptoms.[3])

Causes of Depression

Mental health disorders still very much pose a mystery to medical professionals and science, in general. While depression is treated in a variety of ways (medicine, therapy, alternative healing, etc.), professionals are still learning more about this disorder and how it affects people of different genders, ages, and backgrounds.

However, a variety of factors are known to be possible contributors to depression, such as:

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  • Hormones – in cases of giving birth or going through menopause, women’s hormones quickly change, which can trigger depression or similar symptoms
  • Genes – while not everyone gets depression from inherited traits, it is a factor, and research has seen a correlation between depression in families that is carried through generations
  • Brain chemistry – one of the key factors in understanding cause of depression is brain chemistry, specifically neurotransmitters that work with the neuro-circuits in the brain to balance mood stability. If these neurotransmitters are not working properly, it could lead to depression or similar symptoms

We already mentioned brain chemistry, and how it plays an integral part in understanding how your brain works in relation to mood stability. Neurotransmitters are your body’s chemical messengers. They transmit these messages between neurons for a plethora of reasons – cognitive function, organ function, dopamine release, etc.[4]

In terms of relating this to depression, however, those transmitters also regulate mood stability, and if they’re not relaying messages correctly or connecting to the brain circuitry in normal, functioning ways, we see a correlation between that “misfiring” and mental illness.

To paint a picture, imagine your brain split in half, the two lobes or hemispheres perfectly separated from each other.

Now, imagine the mood-stabilizing neurotransmitters like tiny little ping-pong balls that bounce from one hemisphere of the brain to the other, relaying messages that connect the brain as a whole. This is what we normally see in a healthy functioning brain.

However, if there is a change in this chemistry, and the ping-pong balls are not crossing and relaying as they should, that change creates a shift in your brain circuitry that may cause depression or similar symptoms.

Because our brain is an extremely complex and intricate organ which scientists are still studying and learning about, it wouldn’t be complete to say that only chemical imbalances cause depression.

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In fact, recent Harvard research suggests that a slew of factors are involved in creating a correlation between depression and your brain function. These are inclusive of the neurotransmitters we described above, but they also include your way of life, medication, stress levels, and even genetic contributions or ways in which you were brought up.[5]

Because depression is a mood disorder, we have to look at our behavior, and how it is influenced by our brain chemistry.

Behavior is shaped by our temperament, and much of that comes from our genetics. We are predisposed to act in certain social situations in ways that tie us to our family chain.

How we react to life circumstances or other people is very much a reflection of what we picked up from our parents, guardians, friends, or social upbringing. From this, we may make different choices in life, for better or worse, depending on these genetics.

Similarly, our view of the world and our relation to it also have a hand in how depression may form. We create our world view early on in life, and while it is influenced by our family and life events, it’s also very much our own.

If you’ve experienced loss or disappointment, you’re likely to fall back on your world view to cope with it and allow it to protect you. As an example, you may close yourself off from new relationships because you’ve endured heartbreak and don’t believe that you’re worthy of real love; or, you come from an upbringing that wasn’t emotionally available, so you don’t create habit patterns or behaviors that show you how to handle emotion in a healthy way.

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All of these scenarios create behavior. In turn, that behavior creates habit patterns, that in turn, create your daily life and your interaction with it.

While chemical imbalances can have a direct role in manifesting depressive episodes, we have to be aware that our own, inherent behavioral traits are just as powerful contributors.

Medications to re-balance any chemical disruptions in the brain are a proactive tool against depression. These can be explained and provided to you by a medical health professional.

When it comes to our behavior, however, and how we deal with stress, trauma, loss, medical problems, and the like – all of which are triggers for depression – we can implement new habits[6] that can decrease any damage to our state of body and mind, such as:

  • Meditation
  • Deep breathing
  • Yoga or any body-conscious movement or workout
  • Journaling about life events or problems we encounter on a daily basis
  • Therapy or group-sharing
  • Acupuncture, Reiki, or any alternative-healing modality
  • Diet and nutrition rich in foods that cleanse and empower (rather than numb and overpack the gut)
  • Hiking, running, biking, or any cardio-increasing activity
  • Spending time with others who support you

These are habits and tools that you can implement on your own, as well as with a professional. Remember to always consult with your doctor before starting any new regiment.

The Bottom Line

Depression is a disorder that affects our mood. While research has uncovered that depression may be linked to chemical imbalances in the brain, it also suggests that our behavior and inherent genetic traits are strongly connected to how depression manifests.

How you deal with the many ups and downs of daily life are strong indicators of where you may want to make changes, whether medicinal or alternative, to decrease your chances of depression and its damage, and embrace a life of health and well-being.

Featured photo credit: AJ Garcia via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] National Institute of Mental Health: Major Depression
[2] National Institute of Mental Health: Depression
[3] Mayo Clinic: Depression (Major Depressive Disorder
[4] Queensland Brain Institute: What are Neurotransmitters
[5] Harvard Health: What Causes Depression?
[6] Help Guide: Coping with Depression

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