The other day I learned about “Rat Park,” an experiment that gave some big clues as to how environment affects behavior. Scientists placed one group of rats in small, bare, cages with no company. They put another group all together in Rat Park, a large area with lots of toys and room to play, eat, and mate. Both groups could choose from two water sources: one with plain water, the other laced with morphine.

I wasn’t surprised to read that the caged rats quickly got hooked. But here’s where it gets interesting – those in Rat Park preferred the plain water. Even more unexpectedly, caged rats that had become addicted soon kicked their morphine habit when they were moved to Rat Park! This got me wondering how environment affects behavior for those of us who are working to stop our harmful, abusive actions?

 

The link between environment and behavior

Breaking a bad habit, like biting our fingernails, takes a lot of willpower. When that “habit” is a big problem that affects other people, like abusive behavior, the focus and effort required is even greater. We can make this change journey easier by building a good environment around us.

Stability, meaningful work and hobbies, supportive friendships, days that feel “full”: these things give us joy, purpose, and the strength to face new challenges. In contrast, instability, boredom, isolation, stress, and a bad lifestyle often leave us feeling depressed, anxious or depleted. Our environment can help us make positive changes or negatively affect our behavior as we fall back to harmful coping mechanisms.

 

How can our environment contribute to bad behavior?

Abusive behavior is often its own kind of coping mechanism. We develop it in response to emotional wounds we received early on in life, from the environment and family we grew up with. If we don’t do the work to heal these wounds, our unhealthy coping methods become habits, leading us to cause harm.

The external conditions around us today are rarely the root cause of these core wounds. What’s more, we cannot use it as an excuse for bad behavior – that responsibility lies with us alone. We may not have caused the problem, but it is our job to fix it.

However, our environment can make us more likely to rely on harmful emotional coping mechanisms, like the morphine-addicted rats.

  • If we eat poorly, don’t have friends, hate our job, or don’t have a job, we’re liable to feeling depressed and down on ourselves. When our “low self-esteem” button gets pushed, we’re more likely to react with anger or rage.
  • If we’re grappling with a lot of instability and stress in our life, we’re likely to feel insecure and unsafe. This might trigger bad emotional habits, like feeling a need to always be in control.
  • Not having friends or a social network around us can mean we end up relying on our partner to make us feel good. This sets us up to feel hurt and lash out if they don’t do that.
  • A difficult partner or a mutually abusive relationship will help create an environment where we regularly feel triggered. We’re more likely to turn to bad behaviors and conflicts often escalate faster.
  • Finally, our environment might contain “cues” that remind us of past events that were negative or traumatic. For example, if our parents used to argue at dinner, we may associate dinnertime with being in an anxious “fight or flight” mode.

 

Bad environments hold us back

In short, if we don’t have a healthy, supportive environment around us, we’re increasing the chances that we’ll do something we’ll regret. Managing our emotions when we have unhealthy living conditions can be like trying to do our taxes in the middle of a construction site.

Managing our emotions when we have unhealthy living conditions can be like trying to do our taxes in the middle of a construction site.

We’re also making it harder to create the positive behavioral changes we want to see. Think how much harder it is to learn a new skill when we’re stressed and busy – we don’t have the bandwidth! Or imagine trying to navigate a big life change alone, without good friends to provide support and guidance.

If we get as many of these challenges out of the way as possible, we’ll be in a better place to improve our behavior. It’ll be like doing taxes in a quiet room with a helpful accountant – still tough and scary, but doable.

 

Creating a healthy environment to support healthy behaviors

Putting the status of your relationship aside for a moment, have you looked at the other areas of your life recently? Are you in the equivalent of Rat Park, with a great community, a range of interests, a sense of fulfillment? Or are you isolated, bored, inactive, or stressed?

Journaling is a great tool for identifying the things that contribute to our bad behaviors – and these include environmental factors. Perhaps you feel burned out from work, worried about money, or cooped up and lonely from not getting out enough. Or it could be that you associate certain spaces and routines with negative feelings, like the dinner table example.

See if there are steps you can take to make your environment better.

See if there are steps you can take to make your environment better. Of course, some conditions around us can’t be changed. Other challenges may take time to change–we aren’t going to get rid of them overnight. In fact, trying to do so can feel even more overwhelming, especially if we’re also facing legal trouble or the potential loss of our relationship.

But there are often some simple actions we can take to start building a healthier, more supportive environment, such as:

  • Going to a community meal to make new friends
  • Doing something fulfilling, like volunteering at church
  • Taking a vacation or talking to our boss about reducing our workload
  • Seeing a financial counselor to get a handle on our debt
  • Switching up routines that we associate with bad experiences
  • Getting counseling to help us process our wounds and learn better emotional management skills

For those things that are outside our power to control, we can learn to practice awareness and acceptance. This means making space for our own feelings – both the good and the bad – but not allowing them to rule us.

 

Conclusion

Scientists are still trying to figure out just how much our environment affects our behavior, emotions, and thoughts. But we’re all products of the world around us to some extent – both the one we grew up in, and the one we’re in today.

If you didn’t have the best start in life, I am truly sorry. But please know that you can kick start your healing process by building a healthier environment for yourself now. It will make the journey so much easier!

 

Faith note­­

One place we can go to find a healthy, supportive environment is to become part of a Christian faith community. And when I say “part” of a faith community, I don’t just mean attending a worship service once a week, although that certainly has benefits. I mean taking a class, participating in a Bible study, joining a small group, or working on a mission project with other members.

Smaller, interactive groups that study, discuss, and work together allow us to get to know others on a personal level. I’ve learned a lot from more mature Christians in these settings, like how they view the world and face challenges. And as those people get to know me, I’ve benefitted from their wisdom, acceptance, care, and encouragement.

There is something unique about Christian communities.

While it is true that being part of any group can provide these kinds of benefits, there is something unique about Christian communities. For one, most of the people there are trying to follow Jesus, even if no one is doing it perfectly. Being like Jesus means being loving, kind, full of grace and truth. Who doesn’t want to hang out with people like that?

The other unique aspect of being part of a faith community is it’s an environment where we can grow our relationship with God. In fact, that’s one of the main reasons Christians come together—to learn, grow, and encourage each other’s spiritual development. We can learn who God is and grow our faith in his goodness, power, and how much he loves us. Only among a community of other believers are we going to find these benefits.

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