The Biology Behind Resisting Temptation

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You may already be finding your New Year’s resolution to eat better and get in shape hard to keep. But, you might be interested to know it’s not just your "weak" will power. Your inability to break bad habits can be explained by biology!

"Why are bad habits stronger? You’re fighting against the power of an immediate reward," Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse and an authority on the brain’s pleasure pathway, tells the Los Angeles Daily News.

"We all as creatures are hard-wired that way, to give greater value to an immediate reward as opposed to something that’s delayed," Dr. Volkow says.

Blame Dopamine. This pleasure-sensing chemical conditions your brain to go for the immediate reward, reinforcing the connection between the bad habit and desirable consequence.

Find yourself reaching for the bag of chips while watching your favorite TV show? A dopamine-rich part of the brain called the striatum memorizes rituals and routines that are linked to getting a particular reward, says Dr. Volkow. And, eventually, those environmental cues trigger the striatum to make some behaviors almost automatic.

"I don’t like popcorn. But every time I go to the cinema, I have to eat it," Volkow says. "It’s fascinating."

But, there are ways to fight your biology. Here are some tips to counter your brain’s preference for bad habits:

1) Make the New Behavior a Routine

Was exercise on your list of resolutions? Scheduling it in at the same time of day, as opposed to fitting it in whenever, helps the striatum recognize the new habit so that eventually, you’ll feel the need to work out. Imagine that! Plus, exercise itself increases dopamine levels, making you crave that feel-good rush.

2) Reward yourself

If you’ve been doing really well and sticking to your diet or exercise plan, reward yourself with something you really want. Go shopping or try a new restaurant.

3) Learn How to Control Your Stress Levels

Stress can make you fall back into old habits. "You see people immediately eating in the airport when their flight is canceled," Volkow uses as an example. Click here for some tips for managing all the stress in your life.

4) Get Rid of Rituals Linked to Bad Habits

Stop eating in front of the TV altogether. Soon enough, you won’t automatically crave those Doritos when watching Dancing with the Stars. Guard yourself against whatever it is in your environment that is triggering your bad habits.

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