Last week I discussed the role that unconscious coping mechanisms play in our relationship with stress and well-being. I noted that in order to beat stress, we must become aware of its underlying cause and address the issue directly—which, to some degree, usually involves our own choices. Coping mechanisms are habits we use to avoid dealing with stress directly; by freeing ourselves from dependence on these coping mechanisms we can bring greater awareness of our choices, our stress, and our ability to create well-being into our lives.
Once you have identified some of your unconscious coping strategies and understood their destructive nature (the topic of last week’s post), it’s time to take action. The key to freeing yourself from any coping mechanism or addiction lies in gradually decreasing your reliance upon the behavior until you no longer require any release or stimulation derived from it. When I initially confronted my addictions, I decided that I did not want to take the approach of some organizations—such as Alcoholics Anonymous—that advocated completely eradicating an object from one’s life. As much as I admire the important work that these organizations do, I realized that if I eliminated 100 percent of everything I was addicted to, there wouldn’t be much left in my life! Many of my activities had become imbued with an addictive quality, and I resolved to regain control of all these valuable elements in my life. The goal was to be able to enjoy activities freely rather than either using them as coping mechanisms, or having to eliminate them completely, and in the process perhaps transferring a similar behavior onto a different item because I hadn’t confronted the underlying problem. Eventually, as I became more centered and balanced, the addictions were no longer in control; I was. (There are, however, many addictions that must be eliminated from one’s life for good, such as serious addictions to alcohol and drugs, which can be seen to clearly harm one’s body and mind in any dose.)
After you have identified your coping mechanisms, choose one to focus on to begin with, and start monitoring your reliance on it. Going back to the first step that I discussed, Take Charge, the most important part of overcoming addiction is your decision and commitment to doing so. Once you have resolved that your well-being is more important than any fleeting release or pleasure you receive from the addiction, you can gradually decrease your reliance on the object every week. Continue to decrease your dependence on the pattern, monitoring it weekly, until you no longer crave the addiction. Then, continue this reduction process with as many coping mechanisms as you can let go of at once. Recognize that some patterns will be relatively easy to overcome, while others will present bigger challenges. It is perseverance that will see you through in the end.
Freeing yourself from habits gradually is often much more effective than going cold-turkey. I saw how difficult it was to give up my own coping mechanisms, and I found I didn’t have the willpower to say, “Starting tomorrow, I will no longer eat dessert or cookies.” It simply didn’t work for me. Instead, I monitored my reliance on the habit in question and would, for example, ask for a smaller piece of dessert. I continued decreasing the size until I could then say no to dessert altogether. At times I found myself taking extra measures to ensure that I wouldn’t be tempted—for example, asking other members of the family not to eat certain foods in front of me or asking them to hide certain foods. This would help to ensure that I wouldn’t be triggered and tempted to undo the progress I was making toward beating my addictions. It is important to remember that things will not always go smoothly and that you will encounter setbacks, perhaps even resorting to your old ways. Write down each success or disappointment every day so that you are aware of your progress and never fooling yourself. I recommend keeping a diary of your progress and taking stock of your wins and losses with each coping mechanism. Since habits are generally formed over a thirty-day period, when you can complete a full thirty-day period of independence from an addiction, you can consider yourself successful in that particular battle. Your cravings will then readjust and balance, and you will grow in willpower, energy, and focus, as you free yourself from self-destructive habits.
Unconscious coping mechanisms are an artificial way of combating stress. Confronting them is one of the most powerful things you can do. It takes time, but by identifying your addictions and deciding to overcome them, you have already begun the process. Of course, support is usually required to bolster your strength and ability to overcome habit and make change, and in the context of my nine steps, this is where the synergy of the nine steps comes into play. The nine steps are interdependent: Each of the steps reinforces the others in supporting your well-being, strength, and freedom from stress. It is this synergy that provides the extra support to be able to overcome stubborn patterns of coping and entrenched habits. In my next post, I will discuss the third of the nine steps.