The addictive cycle: How to beat your bad habits and break the cycle successfully

On the 31st of May it is World No Tobacco Day, a great day to write about addictions and their impact on people suffering from them, don’t you think? In this blog I would like to refer to all kinds of addictive behaviours like smoking (nicotine addiction), gambling, alcohol or drug abuse or as they are all maintained through similar processes.

Let’s start with addressing why the addiction cycle is so hard to break? Part of this question can be answered by explaining the mechanisms of the neurotransmitter system in the brain, but I would particularly like to focus on the psychological aspects of addictions. So many of you may be aware that we often use addictions to cope with difficult or uncomfortable feelings with which we are confronted in life. Absolutely true! But why do we continue to use such strategies to cope with stress and discomfort while the effects of these behaviours often conflict with our values in life? For example excessive alcohol consumption may compromise maintaining a healthy weight, smoking may affect our physical health and gambling may affect financial security? So why is it so hard to quit smoking, stop gambling or cease binge drinking even with the awareness of the costs attached to continuing this behaviour?

Let me explain simplistically: you can compare our brain to an ongoing solution machine. It scans for problems and when one is found, it will focus on finding a solution. This can be a practical solution (to fix a problem) or a comforting solution (to distract or calm the body and mind). Usually our values are the guiding force that directs us towards important long term goals, such as good health and wellbeing and following them allows us to experience greater contentment in life. In contrastthe solutions the brain comes up with are often only focussed on short term gain with the main goal being to reduce discomfort in that moment. For those of us who get stuck in this addictive cycle, we may notice that most of the time we lose touch with our values and we tend to choose short term gain. Every time we experience the reduction of discomfort, whether it be a perception of lowered stress , the brief positive feeling that comes from eating that first bite of chocolate or the sense of our thoughts stopping for a while as we have another glass of wine, it reinforces the addiction. This short term reward is what we crave but the long term cost remains removed from our consciousness in that moment. This becomes clearer when suddenly we can’t fit into our favourite clothes, or we experience a hangover and can’t function at work or get told our health is at risk by the Doctor. It is at these times that we realise the rewards and pay offs are only short lived.

As a psychologist I am particularly interested in finding ways to overcome these addictive behaviours as failure to conquer the addiction can also result in a range of feelings such as shame and guilt (‘I have told people I wanted to quit and now I have to admit I have started again’), low self-esteem, feelings of helplessness (‘everyone seems to be able to do it and I can’t, I must be weak’) and increased feelings of anxiety and depression (‘This failed attempt to quit has proven I can’t stop smoking or drinking, without it I will go insane’). This negative vicious cycle can eventually prevent people from overcoming their addiction and result in an exacerbation of depression or anxiety.

One factor that might contribute to the inability to cease our addictive behaviours can be explained by the following example. When we would like to stop a habit, the habit is probably continuously on our mind (‘I shouldn’t think of smoking as I am trying to quit’). We try to resist our thoughts but because it’s been the primary solution our brain tended to come up with, it’s hard to not think of it. Our mind is not particularly good at being told to NOT think of something. In therapy I often use the exercise of the pink elephant to illustrate this: in the next 30 seconds you can think of anything in the whole world, just NOT a pink elephant. Go ahead, try… Where did your mind wander off to? Yes exactly, probably to your visualisation of a pink elephant…When we try to NOT think of something, we get obsessed by it. In the case of addictions, this tendency to try to fight the urge (i.e. saying I will not think about smoking) will create a stronger urge tothink about the behaviour and act on the urge, whether this is drinking alcohol, having a cigarette, eating unhealthy food or taking drugs. You name it. OK, so fighting the urge doesn’t work. What do we need to do break these bad habits and replace them with healthier ones that are more consistent with our values?

Maybe we can try a different approach where rather than fighting our urges we can try to ‘surf the urge’. What do we mean by surfing the urge? You can imagine an urge to be like a wave, it can start small and develop in size. If you feel an urge arising, like a wave, try to allow the wave to develop, sit with this feeling, and focus on where the feelings and sensations are located in your body. Try to do this with an open, curious, accepting attitude, and see whether you can ‘ride it out’ let the wave break to shore. See the urge as thoughts and feelings that can come and go, without having to respond or give in to them. When feelings or thoughts become too overwhelming just use your breath to anchor yourself. Give it a try if you are struggling with an urge, whatever intensity it is and whatever the behaviour is you are wanting to take action on.  Just try this exercise consistently for a while as it might need some practice to get familiar with it. The effect might be twofold: you have felt able to make a conscious choice to follow your values by surfing the urge rather than compromising them and as a result are likely to feel somewhat stronger and more positive about yourself. Take the time to notice the long term differences at all levels – although you might have felt a little more uncomfortable when surfing the urge, you are likely to see that the longer term discomfort you usually feel does not come up for you.

I can imagine that this may be a very different approach to strategies of willpower, resistance and control that you may be used to. Surfing the urge allows you to feel empowered to make a choice that is consistent with your values by becoming more conscious of your feelings, thoughts and urges in the moment before acting, without using force.  You may notice feelings of resistance and  sceptical thoughts. You can still try this exercise even though you have these thoughts. Just give it a try and see for yourself.

If you are still battling with your bad habits and would like to receive some extra help with this, our psychologists at Attuned Psychology are more than happy to assist you in this process. Feel free to contact our practice manager for more information and to make an appointment. Call us today and make that vital step towards breaking the addictive cycle and living by your values. If you would like to read some more on sex addiction in particular, see my other blog about this topic here.

Sex Therapy at Attuned Psychology is an important service offered by our practice. For more information and to make enquiries, visit our Sex Therapy Adelaide page. 

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