6 Tools to Help Beat Addiction

Recently, I’ve turned my attention to addiction. This is a subject that I have yet to fully take apart. Because I know people who are struggling with addictions of various kinds, and because I sometimes get just a little hooked on sugar and carbohydrates (especially in the form of chocolaty goodness) and find it difficult to turn off those urges, I’m very curious about addiction and the behaviors that support it.

Since I’ve only just begun my examination, I don’t have much to go on just yet. But I wanted to share some of my thoughts of what I think addiction is all about. Later, when I’ve had more time to pick it apart, I’ll find out how close or how far off I was.

Pieces of the Addiction Puzzle

All behaviors serve a function. Therefore, if addictive behavior serve a function, the question is, what is the function of the behavior?

At its simplest level, I know that getting a “fix”, or experiencing the habit behind the addiction once more, causes feel-good chemicals to be released in the brain which cascades throughout the body. Take smoking, for example. When a smoker gets a fix, that means he’s just smoked a cigarette and, for a brief period after smoking, his mood might rise a little and his stress level drops. It’s literally like taking a drug.

So if you’re used to feeling good at regular intervals throughout the day, as a result of smoking, then you’re likely going to get the “urge” to start feeling good again and de-stress (smoke a cigarette) again if it’s been a little while since you last fulfilled the urge. The more you “practice” this behavior, the more it becomes a habit. As I see it, if you reach a point where it becomes a compulsion, that’s when it becomes an addiction.

So if you want to break an addiction, I’m guessing that there are a few “tools” that might help. Again, I’m just guessing right now. I’m going to try to confirm this and report back. But here are 6 tools that I think would help.

  1. Intention: If you want to change a behavior that makes you feel good but has lasting negative consequences that you don’t want, you have to make a conscious decision that you intend to quit. But you’ve got to mean it! You need to put honest-to-goodness conviction behind your decision.
  2. Replacement: For most people, I’m guessing that the “cold-turkey” (meaning instantly quitting forever) method is not a long-term solution because you haven’t addressed the behaviors that support the addiction, even though it may work for short durations. We depend on our routines. So learning how to replace bad habits with better ones seems like an important part of beating addiction.
  3. Feel-good chemicals: Whether it’s food, cigarettes, gambling, or a million other things, take away your “drug” and suddenly you’re not getting your regular dose of feel-good chemicals rushing through your body. So it seems to me that you’re going to need to find a new source of feel-good chemicals. Obviously, you want the new source to be healthy, moral, and legal.
  4. Support/Reminders: It’s too easy to get distracted and “fall off the wagon” when trying to beat an addiction. So it can be helpful if you associate with people who can encourage you or will participate in a new behavior with you, such as an exercise buddy. Some addictions are incredibly hard, so it’s nice to have caring, patient, understanding, and non-judgmental people around you for support.
  5. A clearly-defined plan: Some habits might require a lot of planning ahead. Such as, you usually eat lunch at work in the break room, right by the window. The problem is, the picnic table is just outside the window and that’s where all the smokers hang out during lunch. If you’re trying to quit smoking, it might not be a good idea to sit by the window. If you’re trying to quit eating junk food, you may also want to avoid sitting near the vending machines. If you’re trying to quit gambling, you may want to sit in a bathroom stall that doesn’t have a slot machine in it. Okay, I have no idea if there are actually slot machines in bathroom stalls, but if there are, don’t go there.
  6. Reinforcing thoughts: Beating an addiction is a battle that’s won day-by-day and moment-by-moment. Your thoughts matter. Strong, positive, and supportive thoughts will prop up your weakness and give you the right kind of fuel to help you stay determined. Meek, self-deprecating, and pessimistic thoughts will punch holes in your determination and create openings where a relapse can occur.

Addiction is not a simple issue to sort out. I think it’s very complex and has a lot of moving parts. You can’t just take out any piece and still expect everything to be okay. I’ve started putting labels on a few parts, but there are many more. But I’m just getting started.

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What would you add to these 6 tools? Share in the comments. Thanks for reading.

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Comments

  1. Reinforcing Thoughts is the tool that is hard to use, but is very effective. I say it’s hard because the compulsive behavior of addiction is very powerful and hard to overcome. When the compulsion strikes, it’s like another person takes over and you have little control.

    Just yesterday, I wanted to meet this “other person” up close, because the compulsion hit. It actually hit, I gave in once, and that ONE time gave it more power, so I wanted more. However, this time, I wanted to face this drive, compulsion, this other person, and have a serious talk with it. I asked questions like, “Why do you need it? Why do you want more? It will only make me feel bad.” Then I progressed to thoughts like, “I’m stronger than this. I have the power to make better choices. I will feel BETTER in the long run without it.”

    I didn’t have another one after that. But I know the compulsion will hit again. And I’ll be ready to have another chat!

    • Peggy,

      When I made some suggestions to you recently about allowing yourself to feel the urge and accept it, and to not judge it but only observe it, THIS was the experience I was hoping you would have!! Congratulations!! It’s a very important realization that you’ve made. And the best part is, you went into the role of “the Observer” without me having to explain it or even tell you that this was an important goal or step to strive for. It’s such an incredible experience when you objectively begin to analyze the addiction and the urges you are having. The objective separation between You, the person experiencing the urge, and You, the as the driving force behind the urge is extremely powerful. As I see it, it’s the first milestone for regaining personal control and personal power.

      Because of your brilliant connection and objective observations, you naturally reconnected with your personal power. And with the force of your conviction, you said NO to your addiction and were able to change your behavior and get different results! This is totally awesome, Peggy! Keep up the great work and keep me posted.

      Cheers!!
      Scott

  2. Susan Mundy says:

    I love this post Scott. Thanks.

    I’m also interested in addictions and why we (the universal we) find them so difficult to break.

    What I find fascinating is that you have admitted up front that you have only just begun to look at the story of addictions and have made some predictions as to what you “think” is going on and as your research continues you can see if you were right or close. This is the classic way of avoiding hindsight bias. For those who aren’t sure what that is…it’s when you find out about something and respond with “Oh yeah…I knew that all along”. The truth is, we don’t know quite as much as we think we do, if asked BEFORE we get the results. It’s also one of the reasons psychology seems like common sense to many people when they hear results of experiments.

    Anyway, I thought everything you said made perfect sense to me. I especially think that your point on intention is perfect for number one…without serious intention and determination there is no hope of breaking any addiction or in fact changing any behaviour. Obviously the remaining strategies are critical too.

    I’m wondering if that saying that it takes 30 days (or something like that) to make or break an addiction is another key? Sometimes when we are trying to give something up, it can become all consuming, and that’s when we fail…but if we knew that it was a given amount of time and then it would become easier after that, perhaps that’s another motivation?

    I know from my studies and research that the worst possible thing for example with drug & alcohol addictions (& I’m guessing for others too) is to go back to using when actually giving up…as it strengthens the addiction more by psychologically reinforcing the need.

    Anyway, really interested in hearing more from you on this issue Scott.

    Cheers & thanks
    Susan

    • Susan,

      Thanks for stopping by. I’ve proven to myself that I’m just as good at hindsight bias as anybody else. Knowing this, I try to take a different approach to the things I’m studying. I tend to find my own ways to experiment, to learn by direct experience (when that’s appropriate), and to observe everyone and everything related to my topic of focus.

      But more than that, it takes some serious contemplation. And that’s where being unbiased is really important. Bias is another topic I’m always exploring, but I digress… When I’ve turned my focus to a specific behavioral puzzle, I tend to not read much about it when I’m actively trying to decode it. I’d rather form my own conclusions first.

      You know, Susan, I’m not a big fan of the claim that it takes 3 weeks to form a new habit (good or bad), even though I know there is some data to back that statement up. However, I don’t know about the studies and how the data was gathered. There is so much that happens when a new habit is being formed. There are so many seen and unseen details to take into account. But regardless of that, it doesn’t matter how long it takes to form a new habit, I can tell you from direct experience that it sometimes takes only seconds to break a habit even when it’s one you’ve had for years. If it’s a habit you didn’t want to break, then that’s a problem.

      Personally, I think it takes less time to break habits you want to keep then to break habits you don’t want to keep. I have observed this in my own life and in a few other people’s lives. But I don’t know if that’s true on a bigger scale.

      So, Susan, what would you add to the list I’ve started?

      Cheers,
      Scott

  3. I have personal experience with drug and alcohol addiction and have been clean for just over two years. After two years, the daily obsession has lightened but sporadically rears it’s head for no apparent reason. I have found that an eclectic recipe comprised of some AA, individual therapy, and a lot of self talk works the best for me. Peggy touched on the objective self talk, but I take the concept a little further. When I wake in the morning, at some point, I acknowledge the monstrous fellow waiting for me to exit my house. He has become an alter ego. After the initial morning nod I usually don’t think of him again unless I am triggered in some way, then he gets a nod again and I immediately find another human being to speak to-about anything. The point being to keep the insidious thoughts and obsessions in front of me, then “get out of my head” by speaking to whoever is close by, even about the weather if need be. It may seem daunting but realize this self talk and visualization occurs in seconds and it has been enough so far.

    • Matt,

      I’m really intrigued by your process for dealing with the urges when they arise. Since I’m still trying to understand addiction at a deeper level, specifically from a behavioral and motivational perspective, is there anything missing from this article or anything you feel I should explore or consider? Just reading your comment was educational to me. I really appreciate you taking the time to share your thoughts.

      Cheers,
      Scott

      • Scott,

        For me, the most important tool you have mentioned would be #1–intention. Intention must be restated every day to be effective. You can call this self talk, prayer, metacognition…whatever you prefer. Vigilant daily intention, possibly even multiple times a day in the beginning of sobriety. I have also found Victor Frankl’s theory of Logotherapy very helpful in hard times and self pity. This has given my suffering meaning (my sobriety, though hard, can break the cycle of addiction in my family and spare my children the same fate). Thoughts like this have proved to be down right uplifting and motivational, and have carried me through rough patches. I would like to stress that the addicted mind is broken, the thought process is wrong–so vigilance is imperative. A couple of “white lies” today could easily turn into falling off the wagon and finding yourself “back in the bottle” a month later. That’s how it happens, an insidious snowball effect.

        • Matt,

          What you are saying is powerful stuff, my friend. It’s giving me new insights from a different perspective. Between what you are saying and my ability to fill in some gaps based on my understanding of behavior and motivation, I feel like I have, indeed, moved up a level in my understanding.

          I want to circle back to something from your earlier comment: “After two years, the daily obsession has lightened but sporadically rears it’s head for no apparent reason.” Indeed, the reason isn’t often apparent, but there is a reason, as I’m sure you realize. I’m working on an article that relates to this topic. So keep a watchful eye for it. I hope it helps shed some light on this.

          Thanks so much for your deeply insightful comments. Stay strong and clean!

          Cheers,
          Scott

  4. I would like to comment on Susan’s post above. It has become apparent in the field of addiction that relapse is an important event in true recovery. It’s almost as if a relapse after brief sobriety convinces the addict that hey, I really do have something wrong with me and I better get serious. Relapse is nothing to be ashamed about, and should be embraced as an opportunity. Also, it has been said that it takes 90 days in a row to form a habit, that’s why AA’ers do 90 meetings in 90 days. Whether or not this is true is beyond me.

    • Matt,

      More excellent insights you’re sharing here. I have found this one to be true from my experience as well. I always consider a relapse just feedback on what isn’t working. When that happens, I try to understand why it didn’t work and would contributed to the slip-up. Then I make new rules or set different consequences, or make any adjustments that seem like they’ll address the issue. Although, I’ve always heard that it takes 21 days to build a new habit, but I don’t agree with that. Personally, the 90-day time frame makes way more sense to me.

      Scott

  5. I am embarking on a change of lifestyle with diet, exercise and sobriety and had 2.5 weeks of sobriety in, when I had a slip last night. I am trying not to get too down on myself and learn from the experience, but I am struggling a little bit today. I had a terrible fight with my Mother yesterday, and drinking has been a crutch for stress relief. I was able to think about it first, so drinking was not an immediate compulsion, but even though I was aware, I still made the bad choice anyway. This is further convincing me that I do have a problem. I did gain some insights through thinking and writing about the experience, while creating a plan for the next time I am very upset or stressed. After the argument, I still pushed through and attended a family gathering (which have been a source of anxiety for me for some years now), as I was writing about it initially giving myself props for still attending, I realized that was probably the wrong call. I believe I used it as further fuel that I “deserved” to drink after the day that I had. I think if I had cleared my schedule and used that time on some self care activities, I might not have had the relapse.

    • M, I feel your pain and frustration. But more, I feel your guilt and helplessness. I can tell by your heartfelt words that you are trying as hard as you can to take steps to improve, no matter how small they appear. But you know how challenging it is, even when nobody else understands. So please give yourself a little breathing room and don’t be so hard on yourself. There’s not a person on this planet who is perfect. But also, don’t use the leniency as an excuse to continue with a behavior you want to change.

      Though I haven’t been actively writing here on this blog for the last few years, I am still ever-present and active in helping people achieve greater levels of clarity so they can remove the obstacles that prevent the breakthrough they are deeply wishing for.

      Spend some time reading here about subjects that relate to your struggles. I feel like there’s a lot here that may provide some insight into your own behavior and your struggles. I could write about this at length, but I’m currently living in Thailand and it’s bedtime. 🙂 But don’t hesitate to reach out to me on my Behavior and Motivation Facebook page and message me, or use the contact form here if you would like some guidance on the core obstacles you are facing. Lastly, take the time, every day, to feed your mind the kind of thoughts that restore faith in yourself as well as keep you mentally and emotionally strong so that you can handle stress without falling back on your default coping strategy. You will make many mistakes on the road to recovery. Allow space for them and you’ll get through the rough times faster.

      I wish you the all the best in your effort to renew your mind and body. Cheers, my friend.

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