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December 6, 2023

Supporting Change in Habitual Behaviours

Simple ways to recognise and support changes in unhelpful habitual behaviours.

As human beings, we are all creatures of habit. We seek predictability and reliability as a means of keeping ourselves safe. Habitual behaviour – in other words, behaviour that is repeated until it becomes automatic – helps us foster that feeling of security.

Habits, especially those we perform on a subconscious level, are vitally important as our brains have limited capacity to process new information and rely on repeated patterns to smoothly navigate daily life. The trouble is, some habitual behaviours do not always serve us and can have an unhelpful impact on both our own lives and the lives of those around us.

With the individuals in our settings, often a central part of our role is to support change in certain habitual behaviours to ensure each person can lead a rich and full life.

Helpful and unhelpful habitual behaviours

In day-to-day life, much of our behaviour is habitual, from eating breakfast and brushing our teeth, to getting dressed and getting to work. Having repeated these behaviours over and over again, we eventually operate on autopilot, freeing up capacity in our brains for dealing with new information.

Many of the habitual behaviours we develop could be considered ‘helpful’; for example, fuelling our bodies with nutritious food and taking regular exercise, both of which keep us fit and healthy. Similarly, developing healthy coping mechanisms to self-regulate when we feel overwhelmed helps us to stay calm and regulated in stressful situations. With enough repetition over time, these behaviours and responses become automatic.

However, sometimes, less helpful habitual behaviours can also take root: eating junk food while watching TV; smoking; biting nails; or reacting in particular ways to certain people or environments.  When we repeat these behaviours again and again, we begin to perform them on a subconscious level, making them difficult to recognise and address. Our brains get stuck in fixed patterns.

Habitual behaviours in our settings

When we know the individuals we support well, we can often predict how they may react to certain stimuli and the behaviours we might see in a particular situation.

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