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Addiction

An Addiction Myth That Needs to Be Revisited

Research in neuroplasticity demonstrates how to break a habit.

Key points

  • Motivation alone is not sufficient to change a habit.
  • The key to changing a habit is breaking the association between the habit’s cues and the indulgent behavior.
  • Developing self-control in one area of life carries over to other behaviors.

Recently, I was coaching someone in a porn recovery program. The young man in his twenties told me he had a bad week. He had “slipped” and “failed” in his commitment a few days ago and felt very ashamed.

“Wait one second,” I asked.

You have been in the program for two months, and this is the first time you have engaged in porn. That’s once in the 60 days since you joined the program. Before that, you were engaging every day. You’ve reduced your use to less than 2 percent compared with the 100 percent you engaged before. I think that’s a big win, not a slip or something to be ashamed of.

The young man was interested in hearing this perception, and I helped him put his habit change effort into a different perspective.

The myth of addiction is that by making a decision to quit a habit, any habit, you can automatically stop your behavior. This is in direct contrast to what we know about the neuroscience of habits.

When you perform a behavior repeatedly over a long period of time – many years – the underlying neurological basis of the behavior becomes entrenched in the brain’s infrastructure. The specific neural pathways become well-engrained and hardened, making the behavior automatic. Think of the neural pathway as a piece of rope that gets thicker and stronger with each repetition. This is how any habit is developed, whether it’s a world-class athlete honing her skills or an opiate addict downing his pills. The more repetition, the stronger the neural pathways and the more automatic the skills.

Now, because world-class athleticism is rewarded and valued, we don’t think of it as an “addiction,” but it is just that from the perspective of the underlying neural infrastructure. It’s a very well-developed habit that works beyond consciousness.

Making a conscious effort to change a habit is a necessary step, but it’s not sufficient for change. Change only comes by behaving differently. Change only occurs because you don’t indulge in the usual behavior when confronted with the usual temptation cues. That is when you can start to break down the automatic behavior and begin to fray the tightrope that is the underlying neural pathway.

Neuroplasticity Insights

Several key points emerge from this understanding of habits.

  1. You are very unlikely to go from constant use to no use in one go. It’s not just about awareness and commitment. There’s a building in your brain that you have to deconstruct. This means that it is almost inevitable there will be times when the prevailing brain infrastructure will win. This is a journey, not an event. It takes time.
  2. You need to focus on the long term and measure your progress in terms of relative, not absolute, success. You’re engaging significantly less this month than you did last month: good. Don’t beat yourself up for not being completely abstinent. See progress for what it is, and keep going. The more you resist the temptation cues, the more that habit infrastructure breaks down.
  3. The key is breaking the association between the habit’s cues and the indulgent behavior. Use it when you get bored. The less you use when bored, especially if it is considerably less, the less that boredom will become a cue. It will lose its temptation value and become easier and easier to manage. As it breaks down and loses its automaticity, you become much more conscious of the urge and have greater control as a result. Here, you need to make the distinction between different levels of consciousness. One level is simple awareness of what you are doing. That awareness is different from agency when you are consciously directing your behavior. Joe Montana, the San Francisco quarterback, famously said, “I was not conscious when I was playing.” He didn’t mean he was in a coma; he was aware of what he was doing, but his highly trained subconscious mind-body was directing his action.
  4. The best growth opportunities actually come when in a tempting situation. Obviously, different situations carry different levels of temptation. Going late-night bar-hopping with your heavy-drinking friends is a much higher risk than seeing a beer advertisement on TV. However, any successful management of a tempting situation is a win. Part of the strategy is knowing which situations you can master and which you cannot. Avoid the latter, if possible, for the time being, and in time you will be able to confront that situation with increasing levels of control.
  5. It is important to understand that the subconscious processes in the brain are more important than what you are consciously thinking. In the past, when running a wellness and weight loss program at a highly-rated residential facility, I would surprise the attendees by suddenly confronting them with some of their favorite foods. Previously, they had all mentioned to me that they would have no problem throwing away their favorite dishes, but when confronted with the chance to do just that, some of the participants found out it was not so easy. Some got really angry, some burst into tears, and some simply could not bring themselves to throw it away. Your consciousness might be deceiving you.
  6. Yes, this is about developing self-control, despite what you might have heard from agencies promoting products that claim to change behavior without resorting to efforts to build control over impulses. The brain's frontal cortex is where control develops and resides, and it is in a constant tussle with other areas of the brain that send emotional and tempting input into your system. Without that level of self-control, you are at the mercy of conditioned responses. The good news is that building up self-control in one area of life carries over to different behaviors. You’re developing self-control.

One of the oft-quoted research programs is that of Walt Mischel, who, with his colleagues at Stanford, demonstrated over decades of work that those who had effective self-control were more successful and healthier than those who didn’t.

References

Mischel, W. (2014). The Marshmallow Test: Mastering self-control. Little, Brown and Co.

RANKIN, H., HODGSON, R. and STOCKWELL, T. (1979) The concept of craving and its measurement. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 17, 389-396.

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