Many people suffer with addictions, some of these can be major and widely known for being negatively life changing, such as gambling, narcotics and alcoholism, whilst others can be deceptive in the huge impact they can have on people’s lives due to the fact they are more socially acceptable such as exercise, travel, work and sugar.
The reason people engage in addictive behaviours tends to involve a sense of temporary relief, meaning a detachment and distraction from their circumstances, so they can feel better in that moment. Unfortunately, the majority of addictive behaviours trade short term pleasure for long term pain and in this sense they can be very damaging.
The majority of addiction related behaviours are known as “acting out” meaning, people are trying to cope with a situation in a way that isn’t productive or in their greatest interest. For instance, someone is really stressed at work, so they go to a casino and end up gambling their monthly salary on a hand of cards… it’s as if people temporarily lose control, yet at the core of all addictive behaviours there is one simple and common thread.
The person is just looking to get out of pain.
Now, the brain can be very deceptive in terms of what it links pain and pleasure toward, and this is what we need to understand in order to help someone, or ourselves, break free from an addiction.
If the brain links pleasure to particular stimuli then it will always steer us in that direction when we are feeling low in mood, stressed out, and in need of relief from our circumstances – because its job is to protect us. In terms of its physiological impulses, your brain struggles to distinguish between something that is good for you and bad for you in this sense – it just wants to find the quickest and most effective way to get more “feel good” hormones (e.g. dopamine) into your brain in order to feel better.
This is why narcotics are so popular.
Whenever the brain associates something with pleasure, even if it’s something we consciously know is “bad for us” your brain will actively encourage you to engage in this activity; which is why people talk about ‘willpower’ when it comes to breaking an addiction as you are essentially having to fight the physiological impulses your brain sends to you.
So, what can you do to break free from addiction? We’re going to look at two of the most popular methods…
Change the association
If you have an addiction, then it means your brain currently links more pleasure than pain to a particular behaviour. When you condition yourself to change the association, and start linking pain with the addictive behaviour and pleasure with something more rewarding – your brain starts to change what it directs you toward when in need of a feel good chemical such as dopamine.
To break free from an addiction, you must first change your association, which means you must start to associate more pain than pleasure with that activity.
A great metaphor for this is to think about how we get hung-up on people that break up with us in the context of romantic relationships. Your brain is often ‘stuck’ in its association that this person equals pleasure (even though, in the real world they might be causing you tremendous pain)… until your brain catches up, or rather you switch the association, meaning you start to associate this person with more pain than pleasure, your brain will keep telling you the answer to your problems is that person – which is why so many people find themselves in a state of hopelessness, desperation and relationship addiction after a break-up.
Have you ever noticed how the one time most people tend to make changes to their health is when they have had a health scare such as a heart attack or cancer diagnosis? This is because they have now started to associate more pain with smoking than pleasure… until you rewire your thinking to associate more pain to a particular behaviour, than pleasure, then you will keep doing it.
Substitute the addiction
A lot of people find it helpful to substitute their addiction for a less damaging alternative, as an example, if someone were to be addicted to nicotine they might consider replacing the tar filled cigarettes with high VG e-liquid as a less damaging alternative.
It’s not a perfect solution, but you may have seen the recent news stories that estimate smoking e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than real cigarettes. They contain far less chemicals and are therefore less damaging to us, the environment and those within breathing distance of a person’s smoke. It’s definitely a better solution than smoking regular cigarettes.
Of course, if sugar is your addiction that is also hard to break as we crave sugar like drugs! Many health experts claim sugar is as addictive as cocaine! To break free we may need to substitute the high sugar foods for a natural sweet alternative such as fresh fruit and dried fruit. It’s still best to limit our intake of naturally sugary food, but it makes for a much healthier substitute compared to high sugar cakes, pastries and regular chocolate bars.
Overcoming an addiction can be a difficult journey that isn’t as easy as this article might make it sound, yet often we overcomplicate things, when in truth the process is often straightforward. When you shift what your brain links pleasure and pain to, you will be in a good position to break-free from addiction, and in the meantime, using a less damaging alternative to wean yourself off can be a very effective approach. Willpower definitely helps and you need to talk yourself into what you need to do. You can do this!
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