It may seem like a habit, especially one with negative consequences, shouldn’t be so hard to break. 

But after some starts and stops, fails, and back to square ones, things can start to appear complicated. 

We look for explanations for why we’re doomed: 

My family history/genetics (which can’t be helped)

I’m too weak to stick with it (character flaw – I’m screwed)

Nothing else helps me relax (still screwed)

In these moments it’s helpful to take a beat and remind yourself how a habit starts. 

Simply put, we unknowingly teach our brains to expect a reward (dopamine from alcohol) in response to a cue (feeling, time of day, visuals, experiences) by repeating the behavior often enough that our higher brain identifies it as a pattern and kicks it to our lower brain where it can now run on auto-pilot. 

This is a great system when we’re learning to do something beneficial – driving, brushing our teeth, etc. But not so much when the habit we’re forming has negative consequences.

So how do we begin to sustainably unlearn the habit? 

Step 1: Identify the cues associated with your habit. Are you drinking every day at 6 PM? Always drinking with certain friends or during certain events? What thoughts are you having in response to these cues (“I’ve earned this”)?

Step 2: Allow the craving to go unanswered. Don’t act on it, white-knuckle it, or push it away. Just notice it. Describe it to yourself. Observe how it changes over time. Cravings feel strong and urgent because they’re associated with a big chemical reward. But when we allow them to run their course we start to see that they aren’t an emergency requiring a response. They’re uncomfortable for a while, make you feel restless, and then start to dissipate. 

Step 3: Repeat. Once you identify your cues and thoughts, you will be on to your habit. You can start to intervene before it ramps up. The more you allow your cravings to go unanswered, the quicker your brain will learn not to expect a reward. Your brain prizes efficiency; if it’s not receiving a reward for initiating the habit cycle, it’ll eventually stop.

Just as it takes time to learn a habit, it takes time to unlearn it. Be patient and kind toward yourself. Change is coming.