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Alcohol and Mental Health

What Is the Habit Loop?

September 23, 2023
26 min read
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Reframe Content Team
A team of researchers and psychologists who specialize in behavioral health and neuroscience. This group collaborates to produce insightful and evidence-based content.
September 23, 2023
26 min read
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Certified recovery coach specialized in helping everyone redefine their relationship with alcohol. His approach in coaching focuses on habit formation and addressing the stress in our lives.
September 23, 2023
26 min read
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Recognized by Fortune and Fast Company as a top innovator shaping the future of health and known for his pivotal role in helping individuals change their relationship with alcohol.
September 23, 2023
26 min read
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Reframe Content Team
September 23, 2023
26 min read

Remember that time you grabbed your keys, drove to work, and then upon arrival wondered, “How did I even get here?” It’s like you were on autopilot, right? That’s the habit loop in action.

The more we repeat a behavior, the more ingrained the habit loop becomes, leading to automatic responses without much thought. Just as it governs benign actions like our daily commute, a habit loop also plays a role in more harmful habits, like reaching for that nightly drink.

But fear not! This loop can be harnessed and reshaped to create more beneficial habits. Let's define the habit loop and discuss the ways knowledge of it can empower you to change your relationship with alcohol.

The History of Habits: A Brief Overview

Our understanding of habits has evolved in fascinating ways. Not only have they always been an integral part of human behavior, but the way we study and perceive them has changed over time.

  • Ancient philosophies. In ancient times, habits were often considered in the realm of morality and virtue. Philosophers like Aristotle spoke of virtues as the midpoint between excess and deficiency. For him, virtues, or good habits, were about finding the balance in behavior. While this approach did not dissect the mechanics of habits, it acknowledged their power in shaping one’s character.
  • Behaviorism in the 20th century. Fast forward to the 20th century, and the focus shifted from moral philosophy to the scientific examination of behavior. Pioneers like B.F. Skinner, with his operant conditioning chamber (often referred to as the Skinner Box), demonstrated how habits could be formed through positive and negative reinforcement. This era laid the groundwork for the science-based approach to habits.
  • Cognitive revolution. In the late 20th century, the cognitive revolution reshaped our understanding once again. Instead of seeing habits solely as responses to stimuli, researchers began to emphasize the role of thoughts and beliefs. Cognitive-behavioral therapy, for instance, addressed how thought patterns influenced habits and behavior. It shifted the focus from external rewards or punishments to internal thought processes.

Habits and the Brain

Today, advances in neuroscience provide insight into the brain structures responsible for habits. Modern technologies such as functional MRI allow scientists to see the brain in action, leading to a deeper understanding of how habits form and how they can be changed. Here are the main players that we’ll discuss in more detail a little bit later:

  • The basal ganglia: the epicenter of habits. Located deep within the brain, the basal ganglia play a pivotal role in a variety of functions, including motor control, emotions, cognition, and, most importantly for our context, the formation of habits.
  • Dopamine: the brain’s reward chemical. Dopamine, a neurotransmitter, is central to how our brain perceives rewards. When we engage in a behavior that leads to a reward, our brain releases dopamine. This release strengthens the neural pathways associated with that behavior, making it more likely to be repeated in the future. 
  • Prefrontal cortex: the decision maker. While the basal ganglia play a significant role in automating habits, the prefrontal cortex, located at the front of the brain, is responsible for decision-making, planning, and self-control. When we consciously decide to form a new habit or break an old one, the prefrontal cortex gets activated. However, as a habit becomes more ingrained, the activity associated with it shifts from the prefrontal cortex to the basal ganglia, making the behavior more automatic and requiring less conscious thought.

One of the most hopeful discoveries in neuroscience is the brain's plasticity. This means our brains are not immutable; they can change and adapt. With consistent effort and the right strategies, we can weaken old neural pathways associated with harmful habits and forge new ones aligned with healthier behaviors.

The Anatomy of the Habit Loop

A specific pattern emerges when we consider habits from a neuroscience perspective: the habit loop. It’s made of three parts.

  • The cue. This is the trigger that starts the whole process. In the context of alcohol, it might be something like finishing work, meeting up with friends, or feeling stressed.
  • The routine. This is the actual behavior. In the booze scenario, it would be consuming the drink.
  • The reward. After the routine, there’s some form of payoff. Maybe it’s a fleeting sensation of relaxation, a sense of fitting in with peers, or a temporary escape from stress.

Now, let’s examine each component in more detail.

1. The Cue That Triggers the Habit

Our environment is filled with stimuli, but not all stimuli become cues. A cue is a specific trigger that initiates the habit loop. It's the first domino in a chain, prompting the routine and, eventually, leading to the reward.

Cues can be external or internal.

  • External. These are triggers from our environment. It might be the ping of a phone leading to a habit of checking it, or walking past a bar after work, prompting the habit of getting a drink.
  • Internal. These cues stem from within and include feelings, moods, or thoughts. Perhaps stress prompts someone to seek solace in a drink, or boredom leads to mindless snacking.

One of the reasons habits form is the consistent recurrence of cues. Drinking to relieve stress is one of many habit loop examples. For instance, if every time we feel stressed, we reach for a drink, the brain starts associating stress (the cue) with drinking (the routine) and the temporary relief it provides (the reward). This consistent pairing strengthens the habit loop.

Cues and the Brain

Neurologically speaking, cues activate specific regions of our brain, prepping it for the routine that follows:

  • The amygdala: emotional responses to cues. The almond-shaped cluster of nuclei known as the amygdala plays a critical role in processing emotions, especially those related to fear and pleasure. When a cue has an emotional component — for example, the anxiety that prompts a stress-eating habit or the excitement of hearing a phone ping — the amygdala is activated, setting the stage for the routine.
  • The prefrontal cortex: evaluating the cue. When a cue is presented, the prefrontal cortex evaluates it: "Is this familiar? What action did I take last time? What was the outcome?" By processing these thoughts, this region guides how we might respond to the cue, especially if we’re consciously trying to alter a habit.
  • The hippocampus: memory and context. Our past experiences with cues shape our responses. The hippocampus, a crucial region for memory formation and retrieval, provides context to the cues. It reminds us of previous routines we've executed in response to similar triggers, and the rewards (or lack thereof) we've received.
  • The insula: bodily sensations as cues. Have you ever felt a physical craving or a gut reaction to a situation? That's the insula at work. This region processes bodily sensations, making it particularly relevant for habits tied to physical states, such as hunger, thirst, or pain. 
  • Dopaminergic pathways: anticipating rewards. While dopamine is most commonly associated with rewards, its release also occurs in response to cues that the brain has learned to associate with rewards. These dopaminergic pathways, particularly involving the ventral tegmental area (VTA), signal the anticipated pleasure of the habit's reward, reinforcing the routine that follows the cue.
Recognizing Cues: The First Step to Change

It's essential to remember that cues, in themselves, are neutral; they’re neither “good” nor “bad.” It's the routine that follows — the behavior we enact in response to the cue — that can be beneficial or harmful.

Understanding and recognizing our cues is paramount when we aim to modify our habits (more on this later). Whether we want to establish a new habit or alter an existing one, being mindful of the cue gives us a point of interception, a moment of awareness in which we can consciously choose a different routine in response.

2. The Routine: The Heartbeat of the Habit Loop

The routine — the core action or behavior that follows a cue — is the tangible manifestation of the habit. But this observable behavior is just the tip of the iceberg. Below the surface lies a web of intricate neural mechanisms fueling this routine. 

The routine, or the habitual action, can be a complex sequence of behaviors or a simple one. Drinking alcohol, for instance, may involve several steps, from selecting a drink to pouring it and then consuming.

The Routine in the Brain

When we perform an action, a specific pattern of neurons fires. When the action is repeated, the same pattern of neurons fires again, strengthening the connections between them. Over time, as these connections become stronger and more efficient, the behavior associated with this neural pattern becomes more automatic. This process is often referred to as "neural chunking," in which a sequence of actions gets bundled into an automatic routine. Here are the main players involved in this process:

  • The basal ganglia: automating the routine. The basal ganglia takes center stage here. As we repeatedly follow cues with specific routines, the neural pathways in this structure associated with those actions get strengthened, making the behavior more automatic over time. Over time, this process allows the routine to occur with decreasing conscious effort, rendering it increasingly automatic.
  • The prefrontal cortex: modulating the routine. Although habits aim to free up the brain's cognitive resources, the prefrontal cortex still plays a role, especially when we're attempting to modify a routine. If we’re consciously trying to replace an old routine (like reaching for alcohol) with a new one (opting for a non-alcoholic beverage), the prefrontal cortex gets activated, helping us override the well-entrenched habit.
  • Neural chunking: streamlining the process. One fascinating aspect of the brain's efficiency is its ability to "chunk" sequences of actions into a single, automated routine. For example, the act of preparing a drink might involve multiple steps, from fetching a glass, selecting the drink, pouring it, and then sipping. The basal ganglia helps "chunk" these steps into one fluid sequence, allowing us to execute them with minimal thought once they become habitual.
  • The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC): monitoring conflict. Sometimes, we might feel torn between sticking to an old routine or trying a new one. This internal conflict is mediated by the ACC. It detects discrepancies between our habitual response and a desired new action. For instance, if you're trying to reduce alcohol but find yourself reaching for a drink, the ACC flags this behavior, prompting you to reconsider.

3. The Reward: The Finale of the Habit Loop

Completing the triad of the habit loop, the reward offers the sweet or satisfying culmination of our routines. It's not merely a pat on the back or a momentary pleasure. The reward is the brain's way of reinforcing behaviors it deems beneficial, based on the outcomes they produce. 

Rewards can be tangible (such as the taste of the drink) or intangible (such as the feeling of relief from stress or the sense of belonging in a social group).

The Brain and Reward 

By understanding the neurocircuitry of rewards, we can harness this knowledge to our advantage, especially when reshaping habits. Here’s what’s going on behind the scenes:

  • Dopamine: the reward emissary. Arguably the most renowned player in the reward system, dopamine is a neurotransmitter released when we experience something pleasurable or beneficial. It serves two primary roles: marking the routine as something worth remembering and providing the euphoric sensation commonly associated with rewards.

    The dopamine surge, primarily from the ventral tegmental area (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens, tells the brain, "That felt good. Let's do it again." As a result, dopaminergic neurons work to fine-tune and solidify the routine associated with the reward, making it more likely to recur in the future.
  • The nucleus accumbens: the pleasure center. Situated deep within the brain, the nucleus accumbens is the brain's "pleasure center." It's here that dopamine acts to generate feelings of pleasure. This region processes rewarding stimuli, ranging from food to social interactions, and yes, even to substances like alcohol.
  • The orbitofrontal cortex (OFC): evaluating rewards. Beyond just feeling good, the brain also evaluates the quality and quantity of rewards. The OFC assesses the received reward against expected outcomes, determining if the routine was worth the effort and if it should be repeated in the future. If we swap an alcoholic drink for a tasty non-alcoholic alternative, the OFC helps gauge if the new reward is satisfying enough to make this change stick.
  • Opioid system: intensifying pleasure. While dopamine signals the value of a reward, the brain's opioid system — consisting of endorphins and enkephalins — amplifies the feeling of satisfaction.
  • Serotonin: the mood modulator. Often associated with mood regulation, serotonin plays a nuanced role in the reward system. It can influence our overall satisfaction with rewards, particularly in social contexts. For example, when we choose a non-alcoholic drink in a social setting, the positive reactions and support from peers can lead to a serotonin release, enhancing our sense of contentment.

The Craving: An Addition to the Loop

While the cue-routine-reward forms the basis of the habit loop, recent insights suggest that there's another critical component — the craving.

Before the routine gets triggered by the cue, there's anticipation, a craving: the desire for the reward. The craving is driven by dopamine, which gets released not only after receiving the reward, but also in anticipation of it. The craving adds fuel to the habit loop.

How Habits Shape Our Behavior

Our brains are efficient. When actions are repeated often enough, they get delegated to the basal ganglia, ensuring that the prefrontal cortex isn't overburdened. As a result, once a habit is formed, it becomes automatic, demanding less conscious thought.

Habits have a biological purpose and evolved to help us survive. Actions that were beneficial for our ancestors — such as finding food, successfully escaping danger, or finding a mate — were met with neurochemical rewards in the form of dopamine. This positive reinforcement ensured that beneficial behaviors were likely to be repeated, ingraining them as habits.

The problem arises when this evolutionary mechanism gets hijacked by a substance or activity that isn’t actually serving us, such as excessive alcohol use. With the survival mechanism that’s designed to keep whatever makes us feel good going in full swing, the brain acts as if our life depends on continuing the behavior — even when it clearly comes at a great cost to our well-being.

Breaking the Loop

Thankfully, the very thing that makes habits “sticky” can be leveraged against them! 

Understanding the craving component is essential in this process. By recognizing and addressing the underlying craving — with the understanding that it’s part of an evolutionary survival mechanism rather than a genuine desire or need — we can start to substitute a less harmful routine that satisfies the same desire. By combining this enriched understanding of the habit loop with actionable strategies, we can harness our brain's plasticity, reshaping old habits and forming new, healthier ones.

Understanding the habit loop and its origins is the first step. To change our habits, we must replace the routine while keeping the cue and reward the same.

While the change might feel awkward at first, the key is to get the process started and let it gain momentum. In time, the new habit will take hold, making cravings a thing of the past.

Rethink the Drink 

Here are some ways to get out of the habit loop around alcohol:

  • Identify your cues. Keep a log for a week, noting what prompts your drinking. Is it an emotional state? A time of day? A certain environment?
  • Swap out the routine. Once you recognize your cues, think of healthier routines. If stress is the cue, maybe a short meditation or a walk outside can replace the act of drinking.
  • Get support. It's easier to change habits with support. Find a trusted friend or family member who can help you stick to your new routines.
  • Visualize the reward. Really focus on the positive feelings that come with making a healthier choice. Over time, your brain will start associating this new routine with the reward, reinforcing the new habit.
  • Be mindful of triggers. If certain environments or people encourage your drinking habit, it might be helpful to avoid them (at least initially) as you work to solidify your new habits.
  • Stay consistent. Remember, the habit loop is formed through repetition. The more you practice your new routine, the stronger it will become.
  • Celebrate small wins. Every time you successfully replace your old routine with a new one, give yourself a pat on the back. Celebrate these moments! They'll motivate you to keep going.

Summing Up

The habit loop might sound like some cerebral merry-go-round, but it's a powerful tool to comprehend and use to our advantage. You have the power to rewire your habits, and with these actionable steps, a brighter, healthier future is just around the corner. Here’s to new beginnings and understanding our amazing brains a bit more! 

Summary FAQs

1. What is the habit loop?

The habit loop is a three-part cycle that governs our behaviors: the cue (trigger), the routine (action/behavior), and the reward (outcome that reinforces the behavior).

2. How does the brain recognize a cue?

Several brain regions are activated by cues, including the amygdala (processing emotional responses), the prefrontal cortex (evaluating the cue), the hippocampus (providing past context), the insula (recognizing bodily sensations), and dopaminergic pathways (anticipating rewards).

3. What role does the basal ganglia play in routines?

The basal ganglia are central to habit-related brain activity. They help form and execute patterns of behavior, and as routines are repeated, the neural pathways in the basal ganglia become stronger, making the routine more automatic.

4. Why are rewards so crucial in the habit loop?

Rewards provide a neurochemical affirmation to the brain, signaling that the preceding routine was beneficial. This reinforcement, which occurs primarily through dopamine release, ensures that the behavior is more likely to be repeated in the future.

5. How can I modify an unwanted habit?

To modify a habit, it's essential to understand and recognize the cue that triggers it; consciously replace the undesirable routine with a positive one; and finally, ensure that the new routine offers a satisfying reward.

6. What are some key brain regions associated with the reward system?

Notable brain areas involved in the reward system include the nucleus accumbens (pleasure center), the ventral tegmental area (VTA) (dopamine release), the orbitofrontal cortex (evaluating rewards), and the opioid system (intensifying pleasure).

7. How can knowledge of the habit loop help in reducing or quitting alcohol?

By understanding the habit loop's components and underlying brain mechanisms, individuals can better recognize their alcohol-related cues, consciously alter or replace their drinking routines, and seek alternative, healthier rewards to reinforce positive behaviors.

Ready To Get Out of the Habit Loop? Reframe Can Help!

Although it isn’t a treatment for alcohol use disorder (AUD), the Reframe app can help you cut back on drinking gradually, with the science-backed knowledge to empower you 100% of the way. Our proven program has helped millions of people around the world drink less and live more. And we want to help you get there, too!

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