Biting my nails, overreacting, playing with my hair and going ham on the free snacks at work are all bad habits that feel so good in the moment but are immediately regretted afterwards.
My worst bad habit is popping zits. I pop blemishes that shouldn't even be popped or when there's nothing to pop, and it always happens when I'm stressed out.
I've been trying to stop since puberty hit. I've even taped notes to my mirror that say, “Stop picking!”
But I can never seem to control the urge.
That's the strangest part about a habit: It seems to happen automatically and without my permission.
It's like I black out during the picking portion and then come to with the reflection of myself and my reddened, blotchy skin and feelings of instant regret.
Luckily, there's a scientific reason to back up this “black out” and explain how habits form.
According to several psychological studies, a habit is made up of a three-part process called a "habit loop."
First, there's the trigger (or cue), which, in the case of my zit popping, was stress. Other triggers include time of day, preceding events (like your phone buzzing) and location, which is why it's often easier to break a habit when you're on vacation.
Next is the routine (or the bad behavior itself): the zit-popping.
During this, the cognitive part of your brain — the prefrontal cortex — basically goes to sleep and the basal ganglia takes over.
This is why we can talk while we drive. Once your brain learns how to drive, it does so automatically, freeing up thinking space in your prefrontal cortex.
Unfortunately, this is also why it's difficult to stop the bad behavior once it starts because the logical part of your brain basically shuts down.
The final step in the three-part process of habit formation is the reward.
This is the feeling of satisfaction you get that tells your brain to do this habit again. The brain literally gets a hit of dopamine when this happens.
Next time you find yourself sneaking a soda during a lull in the workday, try thinking of this three-part process.
If you understand how a habit forms, and if you cultivate awareness, you'll have a better chance of breaking that habit.
To learn more about what happens to your brain during a bad habit, watch the video above.