The striatum is central to our automatic thoughts and actions. It is the largest structure of the basal ganglia, the habit center of the brain. It can help inhibit the activity of the amygdala. It allows you to feel safe in the presence of God.
Together the caudate and putamen make up the upper part of the striatum known as the dorsal striatum. The caudate and putamen are central to your automatic thoughts and actions.
The nucleus accumbens is a key part of the ventral striatum, or lower part of the striatum. It is the heart of the reward system of the brain and works in conjunction with the neurochemical dopamine. Dopamine is released from the nucleus accumbens. Unhealthy levels of dopamine can lead to addiction characterized by abuse, dependency, and pathological craving.
Neurologically habits work in a loop that contains a cue, routine, and reward. What makes up our habits is often outside of our conscious awareness. Isolating the cue, routine and reward of a habit can help us see why we do the things we do. Often there is a cue or trigger that sends our minds into automatic mode. Imagine a commercial of an ice-cold beverage or a mouth-watering sandwich. Those are powerful cues that impel us to act. Our routines can be emotional, physical or psychological. It could be a thought pattern or something like going to the refrigerator late at night. The reward is something that your brain uses to remember this pattern even without thinking. When you isolate the reward, it can help to change the routine.
Through habitual practice you can help your striatum work with you rather than against you in automatic thoughts and actions. Below are five key ways that can help you break free from negative habits or start new healthy habits.
- Start Small: Many people give up on forming habits because they get discouraged. If you want to meditate every day, try meditating for just three minutes. If you tell yourself you want to meditate for thirty minutes per day and then give up when it’s too hard, you’ve accomplished nothing. It’s much better to start small. Then you can build your way up to your goal.
- Isolate the Reward: Neurologically, habits work in a loop structure containing a cue, routine, and reward. If you are watching traumatic news, it can help to take a step back and ask why. If the reward is a sense of connection, you can find that reward better with friends, family, and community than watching the news. If you can label the reward, you can change your routine to better reward what you are really looking for rather than something damaging. If you take a break to smoke a cigarette, perhaps the reward is more truly to connect with friends and have time away from stress. Isolate the reward and you can change the routine.
- Delay: If your goal is to eat healthier or stop smoking, intentionally delaying your bad habit can help. If you can delay having a cigarette for five minutes or delay eating a bag of chips, then you can probably delay it ten minutes. You can build up to not doing the habit at all.
- Cues: Cues are a way of helping you remember to do your habit. If you want to go to the gym in the morning, you can cue yourself by having your gym clothes all packed and ready the night before. Any small thing that can make doing the habit just a little easier might make the difference to help the habit stick.
- Track: There is quite a bit of research showing that when habits are tracked, they are more successful. Taking the time to look at what you do throughout the day or week can be very enlightening.
The Daily Examen reflection can also help you claim and identify how the fruit of the Spirit is automatically working in you or not working in you.