Think of all the habits you have, good and bad. Your morning cup of coffee, turning off all the lights before you leave the house and pulling out of your driveway to get to work. Of all the habits you have, your daily oral routine is certainly one of the most important. Because you perform it twice each day it can also feel like it’s so routine you don’t even realize you’re doing it. The thing about habits is that even if they’re beneficial, like brushing your teeth, is that you may not be doing them as efficiently and effectively as you could be. This becomes a problem when you are not doing it correctly. For many Americans this is overwhelmingly a problem when it comes to an oral health routine.
We learn to brush our teeth when we are very young. No matter how much our pediatric dentists and parents try, it can be very difficult for us to understand how important brushing and flossing is, much less how to correctly perform each task. However this is when our oral health habit is formed. For many this means that we are not brushing correctly even to this day. We only have ourselves to blame but the good news is that no matter how long you’ve been performing a habit, you can always change it.
What is a Habit?
Habits are actions are performed so often that they become second nature and your brain does not have to think at all to perform them. Instead the motions and movements are “imprinted” deep in the brain, so when you know you have to do them you go into autopilot and perform the action. When you first start a habit, you have to think hard about how to do it. However, once you begin to do this action over and over again your brain “switches off” so you can focus on other things like what you’re going to be doing that day or anything else. While this seems nice, not paying attention to the action you’re performing can be problematic, especially if you’re not taking care of yourself correctly.
How are Habits Formed?
Scientists have discovered that there are three components to habit making. The trigger, the action, and the reward.
The Trigger – The trigger is the first step in an action that makes your brain realize you’re about to perform a habit. It lets the brain know it can “shut off” and perform the task because your muscle memory has everything it needs to get the job done. For example, every time you pick up your toothbrush is trigger. Your brain knows to then reach for the toothpaste, turn on the water, and to begin brushing.
The Action – The action is the physical act of your habit. After performing an action so many times your body will instantly perform any habit the same exact way every single time. After you pick up your toothbrush, you’ll apply the same amount of toothpaste with the same hand and start on the same side of your mouth as you always do. Completing the action will lead to the reward.
The Reward – The reward of a habit becomes the reason you do it every day and it becomes a habit. In the case of an oral health routine, the reward can be vast. Immediately fresh breath and clean, white teeth are an amazing reward. Now you feel fresh and ready to take on the day or turn in for the night, the long term reward for an oral health routine is a decreased risk of tooth decay and gum disease.
When Habits are Bad
Unfortunately an oral health routine can become a bad routine. The reason for this is the long-term rewards for impeccable oral health are intangible. You can reap the immediate rewards by brushing and flossing wrong, and when improper brushing and flossing become a habit, you aren’t doing your teeth much of a favor. Brushing for the reward of fresh breath can be achieved in less than one minute, and is often when people do. However to remove the bacteria that causes tooth decay and periodontal disease you need to keep at it for two minutes. The good news is, any habit can be changed for the better, you just have to stick with it.
How to Change a Bad Oral Health Habit
The first thing you need to do to change your oral health habit for the better is understand the real reward of brushing correctly and how to brush correctly. Removing the bacteria that causes gum disease and tooth decay takes two minutes of concentrated circular motion on every surface of every tooth. To achieve this you must brush for two minutes at a time. It is easiest to change a habit if you are in a different environment. Some scientists recommend starting a new and better habit when you are on vacation to completely remove yourself from your normal routine. However, you can simply brush your teeth in a different bathroom of your house to fix your oral health routine. Next you will have to work hard for a few weeks to train your brain how to brush correctly. Start of slow and really take the time to get every tooth for the right amount of time. After a few weeks of brushing correctly for two minutes these motions will be relegated to the basal ganglia deep in the brain and become second nature. And finally stick with it. It will take awhile for your brain to take over proper brushing from the easy way out you were performing at first. However understanding that you brush your teeth to remove bacteria and improve your overall health instead of just for fresh breath, will help you along the way.
If you have any questions about how best to change your oral health habits for the better ask us at your appointment today. Your Melbourne, Florida dentist will be more than happy to instruct you on the proper way to brush and floss so you are getting the most out of the best habit you have.