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Habits & Mental Health: The Importance of Building Resilience

Updated: Oct 9, 2021

When we think of habits we often think of big activities like someone jumping in a cold shower every morning at 5am. However, most habits are far smaller and simpler, and we do them thousands of times per day, often without even knowing it.

Many of our habits happen without us even thinking about them. For example, we wake up in the morning, we turn off the alarm, we make coffee, we take a shower (at a reasonable temperature), and we brush our teeth. We've done these so many times day after day, that we can literally do them without thinking about them. We're basically on autopilot.

Habits themselves can be positive or negative. Positive habits help move us toward what we want in our day and in our lives. Conversely, negative habits can effectively sabotage our days and our goals in life. Bringing awareness to our habits is an important first step toward making change.

How Habits Get Formed

Habits are basically mental shortcuts that our brains create to solve everyday needs. At some point in our lives we had a need and we tried different solutions. One of those solutions gave us satisfaction in some way, so we started repeating it. Each time this solution satisfied our need, we made a deeper connection in our brain between the need and the solution. Over and over and over, we keep repeating it, without even thinking about it. Our brain creates a literal neural pathway that fires every time we have that need. The need causes us to try the same solution now wired in a neural pathway... out of habit. Our conscious mind likely isn't even aware of it.

Making Change with Habits

To make change you don't need to attempt a huge modification to your behavior. Doing so often results in only short term success. Anyone who has tried adopting the latest diet plan or a new year's resolution knows this all too well.

The opposite of this approach is making small, incremental changes. Making small, incremental changes will help you stick with a new habit much more effectively and will promote more positive outcomes. As an example, imagine doing something just 1% better each day. Only a small, simple 1%. It turns out if you do this everyday, one year later you'd actually be 37 times better. Not 37% better, but 37 times better! Tiny changes done repeatedly can turn into remarkable results.

Habits and Mental Health

When we're in a low mood the lens through which we see the world can become negatively skewed. Things that we once saw positively may now seem negative. Things that we previously saw negatively may now seem overwhelming or even catastrophic

Since our thoughts, feelings and behaviors are closely linked, the result of such a low mood can cause us to feel and act in challenging ways. It can become easy to lose focus, hard to find motivation, and hard to do tasks that were previously straightforward. Our thoughts become jumbled and we too easily get into patterns of overthinking and rumination.

This is when having habits in place can be especially important. Because habits are ingrained in our subconscious brain they are easier to preserve when times are challenging. We don't have to think about them - we just do them. We're much more likely to be able to continue these practices even when we don't feel well.

The result of having these good habits in place is the intensity of our low mood may be less pronounced and we may recover more quickly. In effect, we are more resilient.

Of course, the time to build up these good habits is before you need them. These can be habits like spending a little quiet time each morning writing in your journal, making your bed, or going for a walk around your neighborhood. Things that will be helpful when you don't feel well in the future.

How to Best Create Habits

While there is no definitive recipe to creating a new habit, there are some common approaches that can be helpful. A good habit forming process comes from the book, Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear.

Make it obvious: Be specific about the time and place where you will do this habit. The more specific and regular you are about time and place, the more likely the habit will stick.

Make it attractive: Try linking your new habit to an action that you already enjoy doing. If you want to break a bad habit, try linking it to something that you don't enjoy doing.

Make it easy: Try creating small, bite-sized habits where the threshold to get started is smaller. The frequency with which you do the habit is more important than the duration of time you spend on the task. Human behavior makes us gravitate to the path of least effort.

Make it satisfying: Structure the habit so that there is a reward, even if small. The more satisfying the activity, the more likely you will do it again and move toward creating a habit. The reward can be as simple as noting the accomplishment in your journal or texting a friend that you just accomplished this activity.

So, what is a small, simple habit that you can start to do regularly that will help carry you through life's ups and downs? And what is another habit that you can attach it to to make it more likely to stick?


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