Posted on August 20, 2012 by admin
Changing hard-to-change behavior (habits) is among the greatest challenges we seem to face. These days it seems we tend to call anything that is hard to change or does us harm an addiction. If you scan the popular press you might conclude that as a society we are ‘addicted’ to everything from love, to social media and video games to shopping. The complicated science around what is or is not ‘addiction’ is an important issue for scientists however; these deeper questions don’t need to be answered fully in order for you to make positive changes in your life. Let’s look beyond the label and possible physiological underpinnings to the behavioral and emotional experience we are trying to describe. Often when we say we are ‘addicted’ to something, what we are really saying is we are stuck in a pattern of behavior that is in some way damaging to ourselves (and perhaps others); our quality of life; our health or our happiness. We are saying that despite being rational, well-accomplished, intelligent and loving individuals, some thing that we are doing has a hold on us and despite our persistent effort to change, we feel we are failing.
All human behavior is a consequence of the interaction between our physiological selves (our body/brain) and the overall behavioral environment. What I mean by that is yes our neurotransmitters do in fact respond to our world and the brain’s reward centers are activated when we experience pleasure, however biology is not always destiny. That is why with proper help and persistent effort, many who are addicted to alcohol or drugs or nicotine and so forth are able to stop. This also explains why even long after the direct physiological influence of that substance has left our body (withdrawal) we continue to struggle with staying stopped. If addiction was purely physical, once you got through physiological withdrawal, then it would be done. So what we can conclude from all this is that even for things like those I mentioned, where there is a clear and well-defined physiological addiction, a huge portion of why we overindulge or abuse these things is determined by learning, emotions, and psychological factors. This is likely even more true when it comes to damaging behavior for which the physiological links are less clear like eating, gambling, shopping, sex and so on. Sure the ‘reward’ systems are activated by some of these things, but the science around just how much of this activation is just normal brain activity vs. a sign of a physiological addiction and/or a target for possible medicine to assist is far less clear. Furthermore, even when a physiological component is a part of the picture, it is never sufficient to account for the whole problem we experience.
What is clear about all of these behaviors is that we likely learned to use these things to serve some useful purpose like to feel good, to fill an emotional void or just to cope with daily life. In order to succeed at changing the behavior we will need to unlearn this faulty coping and replace it with new and less damaging strategies. This is why the tendency to call everything ‘an addiction’ can be disturbing, as it can inaccurately imply that damaging behavior is somehow ingrained in our biological roadmap and by extension, unchangeable. The bottom line is that even when there is a physiological component, the lion’s share of the problem in terms of long-term change lies in learned behavior. The good news is that anything that can be learned can be unlearned, and we are all capable of learning more effective strategies. For example, if we look at weight control. At any point in time, during any day, we are faced with dozens of mini-decisions that will impact our weight. These range from things that are loosely related to those that are more obvious. For example, the decision to roll over for an extra 15 minutes in the morning, may cause you to be a little late, which leads to skipping packing a healthy lunch, which also adds stress to the start of your day and so on. This is very likely to build up towards making a less healthy decision at lunch. This is an example of subtle. A more obvious example might be when you make that decision to eat a fast food burger in your car for lunch. Most of us know this will not help our effort to lose weight – or do we. In fact it would seem that we are very skilled at denying even this obvious connection to interfering with our goals ‘in the moment’. Why? Because we have through repetition learned that the immediate reward of simplicity, reducing time pressure, and the emotionally (and possibly physiologically) rewarding experience of eating pleasurable high fat food choices all outweigh the potential for longer-term consequence (weight gain). Add in the denial factor (“I will make up for it later”) and we appear doomed. Lack of awareness in the moment of exactly what is going on with each of these mini-decisions, in my opinion is a major contributor to lack of weight loss success and lack of success with changing most troublesome behavior patterns.
If you look to the Self Help section of www.DrBinks.com you will find some useful tools and more detailed information for helping you identify and change behavior patterns in the context of your daily life (The Matrix©). But here is a quick and practical preview of one strategy:
Before making any decision and acting on it, pause briefly and answer the following questions:
What am I thinking RIGHT NOW?
What am I feeling RIGHT NOW?
Why is doing this so important to me RIGHT NOW?
What are the consequences NOW?
What are the consequences LATER?
Using a strategy like this is a simple way to pause and become more aware ‘in the moment’ and is a first step in changing old habits.