We are all born with the ability to create habits and with the process to get addicted. Without these abilities mankind wouldn’t have lasted as long as we have. There are many things that naturally turn into habits so that we don’t have to pay all our attention to them just to do them. Like driving a car, brushing teeth etc…
Sometimes this process gets high-jacked by a negative habit, like finding yourself smoking before you realise what you are doing. The process for addiction also serves a useful purpose. The process gives you a ‘high’ when you do something and causes irritation or uncomfortableness when you don’t.
This process is required for survival and evolution.
For example when a stone-age man used a stick to break open a coconut the ‘high’ of that achievement wears off over time so the stone-age man then turns that stick into an axe with a piece of flint. He then gets another ‘high’ from that achievement which also wears off over time. This process keeps the stone-age man reaching a point where he needs to do something to get that same high. Addictions high-jack this process giving a ‘high’ when carrying out the addictive behaviour and causing uncomfortableness when fighting to not carry out the behaviour. Over time you need to do more of the addictive behaviour to get the same ‘high’.
A useful analogy of addiction and the associated cravings is one of a company that wants to make positive changes. The ‘boss’ which is the part of you that is saying ‘I want to quit smoking (for example)’ has good intentions. Beneath the boss is a ‘secretary’ that monitors incoming messages from the body. The ‘security guard’ monitors levels of various chemicals in the body but doesn’t know what should or shouldn’t be there, the guard just alerts the secretary if any of the chemicals begin to go missing or reduce.
When the boss has stopped the intake of nicotine, after a short while it starts reducing in the blood. The security guard notices this and so he emails a message to the secretary. This message is laced with dopamine which is a feel good chemical. The secretary checks on the computer and sees that the boss has said ‘no cigarettes’. So the secretary ignores the message. As the nicotine goes down even further the security guard sends another message laced with even more dopamine. This time the secretary does a search on the computer for memories where nicotine has been taken into the body, and searches for memories that are also laced in dopamine. What the secretary discovers is that smoking has made the boss feel good when stressed, when bored, when socialising, etc… So the secretary sends a message to the boss laced with even more dopamine for the boss to act on.
The negative addictive behaviour once served a purpose
People start addictive behaviour for many reasons. It could be many things from peer pressure to experimentation. Often the behaviour initially is only in one context, like smoking with specific friends, or drinking with friends. One thing that all addictive behaviours have in common is that they give you a ‘high’. It could be a ‘high’ from doing a risky extreme sport, or a ‘high’ from taking a specific substance.
To start with this addictive behaviour is in your control. The bigger the ‘highs’ the sooner the addictive behaviour takes on a life of its own. Due to the way the brain works at some point when you feel anxious or bored you will want to relieve this feeling. To do this you turn to the most effective thing you know, which is often the addictive behaviour. This how you begin to create a habit for that behaviour. As long as you continue to do the addictive behaviour your mind will get used to the levels of various substances in your blood stream, whether these substances are created by your mind, like endorphins, dopamine, adrenaline etc, or whether these substances are added to your blood stream like nicotine.
Once you stop the addictive behaviour it takes a period of time for the chemicals in your blood to go back to normal. This period of time can be as little as a few hours for chemicals created internally, to a few days for chemicals like nicotine and longer for some stronger drugs. Once the chemicals in the blood have normalised all that is left is the habit, not the need for the chemicals.
The reason for turning to the addictive behaviour when you feel anxious or bored is that it gives you pleasure, or an instant feeling of gratification when you carry out the behaviour. Unfortunately most addictive behaviour quickly follows with a greater feeling of anxiety or depression as the effects of the behaviour wear off. This means that you have to do more of the addictive behaviour to get the same results.
Beating the addiction
One way to beat addiction is to link the addictive behaviour with the most negative outcomes you can vividly imagine, and not carrying out the addictive behaviour with the most positive outcomes you can vividly imagine. People with addictions will always have one or more of the basic needs or innate skills not being met, so find constructive ways to meet these.
Plan for times when you are most likely to give in to the addiction, finding ways to prevent the old behaviour pattern.
Don’t be put off by a relapse. Many people have a few relapses before they finally completely get rid of that addictive behaviour. When the addiction strikes it is actually only mildly uncomfortable to ignore the urge for the addictive behaviour but it tricks you into thinking it is worse. It also only lasts a few minutes. Try comparing it to other things like would you prefer a nagging toothache or this brief uncomfortableness for the addictive behaviour? Learn to relax; this lets you think more objectively and clearly. To relax you could breathe in to the count of 7 and out to the count of 11. The longer out breath triggers the relaxation response. Regularly vividly imagine the negative outcomes had you continued with the addictive behaviour and vividly imagine the positive outcomes of not carrying out that behaviour, what will it be like, what are the benefits, who else benefits, etc…
Feel free to leave comments below about how you get on overcoming addiction and please share this article with others that may be interested.