Overcoming Addiction

When we hear the word “addiction” we usually think of drugs, alcohol, and maybe nicotine. But in this day and age there are so many more things we can be addicted to that aren’t just limited to the usual substances. Addiction is almost synonymous with street drugs, prescription medication, and alcohol, even though we know that we can be addicted to other things like caffeine, video games, and processed/ junk food laden with sugar, fat, and salt. But what else can we be addicted to?

Surprisingly, the list of potential addictions is staggering and almost endless. Addiction can happen with almost anything, even seemingly harmless culprits: the Internet, social media, pornography, masturbation, ejaculation, sex, orgasm, gambling, shopping, risk-taking, TV, movies, mainstream media and news, even negative emotions, believe it or not… the list of potential addictions can go on and on.

How can this be? How can we be addicted to something that isn’t a drug? How can we get addicted to something like social media or negative emotions?

It’s really simple. We just need to understand how addiction works. Addictions get conditioned when certain behaviors trigger a dopamine response in the brain. That’s really all that’s required. Dopamine is neurotransmitter (a brain chemical) that helps to habituate desired behaviors, such as eating and sex. Initially we experience a reward (the release of dopamine, which causes a feeling of pleasure) to reinforce a new behavior, and as the pattern gets conditioned, the reward is gradually reduced. The behavior becomes automatic, even if the reward is lessened or stopped. If we want to feel the same level of pleasure we did when we first started, we have to keep increasing the “dosage.”

Unfortunately for us, our dopamine reward circuitry evolved during a much simpler time in humanity, when the triggers for addiction-prone behaviors were scarce. In our modern world of overabundant triggers, we see an overabundance of addictions. Our brains over-reward us, thereby over-conditioning short-term pleasures that often work against our long-term happiness and fulfillment. What’s even worse is that many companies deliberately target these neurobiological shortcomings to sell us more products and services. Walk into a grocery store, and notice all the items on the shelves with added sugar, fat, and salt. One of the main reasons these items are added is because they make the food more addictive than it would otherwise be.

It goes without saying that these addictions have consequences for us. For instance, the latest Gallup polls report that 28.3% of adult Americans are now obese, an increase of 2.8 percentage points since 2008. That translates into MORE cancer, MORE heart attacks, MORE strokes, MORE diabetes, and a LOT MORE money spent on healthcare (which is really sick-care).

The Addiction-Free Standard

Overcoming even one addiction is incredibly hard work. Overcoming opioid addiction was the single hardest thing I’ve done in my life. Facing several addictions can seem monumentally difficult, if not impossible.

But what’s the truth about addiction? Well, there are a couple of truths actually. One, is that all addictions weaken us. Addictions lower our ability to discipline our lives. They derail us from our best plans to one degree or another. They distract us from becoming the best version of us we can possibly be. They cause us to live more compulsively and impulsively versus living more consciously and authentically. And so many people report after overcoming a major addiction, life is BETTER on the other side. It can take a lot of patience and resolve to get there though.

The second truth is that addictions are an escape, no matter what way, shape, or form they may come in. No matter how small or trivial – or how big or monumental – an addiction may seem, its ultimate function is escape.

Even if it takes years, if we truly wan to live consciously, then becoming addiction-free must be our gold standard in this area. Even if we never reach it, it’s wise to hold this standard as our goalpost. The closer we get to it, the better off we’ll be. If you currently have five addictions you can clearly identify as being problematic or a health issue, and you could get rid of even two of them through commitment and effort, wouldn’t it be worth it?

Imagine for a moment what your life would be like with no addictions. You’d be more disciplined than ever. You’d have the ability to make conscious choices in each moment. You wouldn’t have repetitive compulsions wasting your time or renting your mental space. Your thinking would be more rational. You’d enjoy more freedom. You’d have more energy and better focus.  You’d most likely save money and you’d surely save time.

Would you like to become addiction-free? If so, then a good place to start is to paint a picture of what your life could look like with no addictions.

Really think about this. Imagine it. Feel it. Usually when people do this, they underestimate how good life will be on the other side, and they overestimate how deprived they’ll feel without their favorite addictions. The real cost of addiction is often hidden to us.

Did you know that addictive behaviors neurologically suppress thoughts and reasoning that might counteract the addictive behavior? Just thinking about overcoming an addiction can feel like pushing through a thick mental fog or an impenetrable barrier. Your own brain will often derail such thought processes in defense of addictive patterns and habits.

And yet there’s still hope. People have successfully overcome decades-long addictions. Failure is rampant but success is possible.

Noticing Addiction’s Irrational Logic

Part of the irrationality of addiction involves outweighing the downside of quitting. Thinking about leaving an addiction behind for good can feel like losing the love of your life. Of course that’s nonsense, but it can feel perfectly rational to the addict.

Try convincing a daily coffee drinker to give up coffee forever – even if you can intelligently and accurately argue every positive benefit of giving it up – and watch them rise up to defend and rationalize the habit as if you’ve asked them to sacrifice their first-born child. Notice how irrational this response really is. Can we live a happy and fulfilled life caffeine-free for all our remaining years? Of course we can. Lots of people do. But when we’re in the grips of the addiction, our rational thinking gets hijacked, causing us to conclude that dropping this substance (which is actually a poison) and replacing it with healthier alternatives will somehow rob us of life’s inherent goodness, even though the opposite is actually true.

The mere suggestion of giving up an addiction often results in resistance. The root cause behind all resistance is FEAR. In this case, the fear of losing something the brain deems as rewarding plus the fear of how much work and effort will go into overcoming the addiction.

What if you never had another orgasm the rest of your life? What if you never consumed refined sugar again? What if you never used social media again? When we ask such questions, our mind immediately objects with irrational fear:

“No orgasms? That’s ridiculous!”

“No sugar? There’s no way!”

“No social media? But I’ll have no friends!”

Of course we could live happy and fulfilling lives without these short-term pleasures. When we think otherwise, we’re confusing pleasure with happiness. It’s the nature of addiction to treat pleasure and happiness as one. The less of an addict you become, the more you’ll realize how separate and distinct these are, and the more weight you’ll place on long-term happiness.

Often behind these objections is a bigger challenge we aren’t facing. How would you live if you couldn’t use social media? You’d probably have to develop a whole new set of skills, which could be an amazing personal growth challenge, one you might actually find fulfilling if you tackled it. What if you never consumed processed salt, fat, or sugar again? Within about 30 days, your taste buds would adapt and become more sensitive and real whole foods lower on the food chain would taste just as good as they did before you became addicted to the processed foods, except they would be less addictive, so you’d probably eat less of them. This would translate into better health immediately due to the digestive and immune benefits of eating less food and less junk. You’d also be less likely to develop diseases because you’d finally be nourishing your body instead of feeding it excessive useless calories.

All or Nothing

One mindset for overcoming addictions is all or nothing. This approach rules out any kind of ongoing relationship with the addiction. The triggers and patterns must be squashed into submission. So if alcohol is your addiction, this means no going to bars, no having any alcohol in your house, and creating substitute behaviors when other triggers get activated (such as having a craving).

When I was overcoming food addiction in 2009 I used this approach, replacing the pattern of giving into food when it was triggered by environmental cues with doing a certain number of push-ups or some other type of body-weight exercise, and it worked well for me. Your approach may be different, but you can find something that works to replace the addictive behavior with. The key is to spend time figuring out what that is.

If you relapse with this approach, which is totally normal, you get back up and and give it a go again, each time with the realization that there is no middle ground. It usually isn’t as simple as quitting cold turkey and succeeding right off the bat. I’m not saying it’s not possible… it’s just not probable and that’s okay. You can’t have a relationship with the addiction. There is no moderation for an addict. The standard you aim to reach is being permanently addiction free from any and all addictions that entrap you.

I went off opiod pain killers cold turkey in 2006 (after 5 years of continual use) and did fine until 2008. I stayed sober for 2 years, then relapsed with the all or nothing approach. But it’s still the optimal approach for me because each time I relapse and find myself feeling sick from abusing too much hydrocodone, it’s a reminder that I can’t have a relationship with pills, even when my brain tries lying to me and convincing me otherwise.

Regulation

An intermediate strategy that works for some addictions is to regulate the addiction. This works best in the early stages of addiction before it’s grown too strong. It’s also a reasonable choice when some aspect of the behavior must be maintained in order to access certain benefits, such as using the Internet.

Relying on your willpower and discipline to self-regulate is usually a losing battle since an addiction will weaken your self-regulation abilities. So it’s wise to acknowledge that you won’t always be as strong as you are when you’re at your best. Eventually you’ll be weak enough, tired enough, or foggy enough to succumb. And the more you succumb, the more you’ll reinforce the addictive pattern, and the more insidious the pattern will be at circumventing further attempts to regulate it.

This works with plain old negative thinking, too. Remember how I  mentioned you can actually be addicted to negative emotions? Well, negative thoughts are what give rise to negative emotions even if we aren’t cognizant of that fact. And negative thoughts become automatic, habitual. So we fall into a negative thinking habit (just like some people fall into a  drug habit) and these negative thoughts produce negative feelings and emotions in the mind and body. Despite our best efforts, we can’t quit thinking negative thoughts. We have developed a force of habit in which our faulty reasoning brain tells us we are somehow going to get what we want through negative thinking and feeling. Negative thinking usually has a greater underlying issue at its root, but it’s just another addictive habit that can be overcome.

This is where relying on some kind of outside help or tool is useful. If negative thinking and putting yourself in a bad mood is an addiction for you, consider there have been numerous books written on the subject. There’s no reason you can’t overcome the addiction and take it a step further by becoming an expert in positive thinking and optimism. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like to read (or won’t read), set down that excuse because virtually every single book can be found on audio these days. You have no excuse not to listen to a book being read to you during any feasible time of your waking hours.

Another example of regulation is if you suffer from Internet addiction, you can install the Freedom app, which lets you restrict your access to certain websites or to the whole Internet. It’s very customizable. I use this app liberally when I want to get some real work done, often scheduling the block times in advance. If I get triggered and try to check email when I should be working on something more important, I get a blocking page telling me that I’m free of that distraction. Going email-free doesn’t seem like a realistic option for anyone but regulating access to it and restricting the habit of compulsively checking it works well for productivity sake.

I’ve also completely blocked certain websites like Facebook and Instagram and even deleted their apps on my iPhone. Sometimes these distractions are equally as useless and time-consuming as smoking weed or getting drunk if all you’re doing is using them as a tool for distraction and escape. It may sound irrational, but even the simple habits of scrolling through news feeds or commenting on someone’s post or opening up dialogue between yourself and others through social media has been proven to elicit that dopamine response in the brain that is so rewarding. This is how something so menial and seemingly harmless can become addictive without us even realizing it! This is why we find ourselves constantly checking our “notifications” and subsequently scrolling, scrolling, scrolling… then before we know it an hour has passed!

As ironic as it seems, the key to regulating an addiction is not to trust your own brain. When it comes to managing addiction, your brain will lie to you. It will tell you it can manage just fine if you want to self-regulate and tone down an addiction, giving you the false impression you can trust it. And then when you aren’t paying attention, it will trigger the behavior, and you’ll be well into it before you consciously realized what happened. Or you’ll watch it happening and won’t be able to stop yourself. If you question the behavior (“Why am I doing this? I really don’t want to? But I’m going to anyway…”), your brain will give you a conditionally convenient rationalization for why it’s okay just this once. And you’ll waste several hours each week on your habit, enough that you could have taken an extra vacation or completed a significant project with the wasted time.

Do not trust your sneaky, addicted brain. Know that it will try to betray you, and take steps to thwart it in advance. The thoughts arising from your brain trying to justify addictive behavior are not who you are; they are not your higher self, not your conscience. These thoughts are not your higher awareness, although they seem like it. They are merely thoughts your brain is using to justify and rationalize all possible reasons as to why you should follow through on the triggered behavior pattern because it wants nothing more than the dopamine reward!

You need to remove the triggers if you can, or put a roadblock between the trigger and the behavior. I know this sounds a bit crazy, but it works.

If porn (or masturbating to it) is one of your addictions, don’t keep any porn on any of your devices. If you have a collection, nuke the whole thing. Yup, all of it, permanently. If this makes you want to cry, recognize that those thoughts are irrational; the addiction is trying to defend itself. You can also block access to your favorite porn sites by editing the hosts file on your computer. Google “edit host files to block sites” for instructions on how to do so. It only takes a minute, and it works for all browsers.

Let me add something to this: porn is very insidious, especially if you’re married or in a monogamously committed relationship. The reason why is because every single time you watch and masturbate to porn, you take your stimulation level and arousal threshold higher and higher. It’s equal to needing more and more of a drug to get your fix. This means sex with your partner will become more of a challenge and less fulfilling because you often can’t emulate the same level of stimulation or arousal in the bedroom with them that you do through the visual stimuli of porn. Also, you have a litany of endless “new women” (or new men) to choose from with porn. With your partner, it’s nothing new. Newness is a HUGE trigger for porn addicts. Newness and novelty is a major motivator for humans in general, but it’s amplified when applied to sex. But the effects of porn on the mind and body are detrimental when it comes to your quality of sex life between you and your partner. It’s easy to say, “Well he/ she just doesn’t turn me on anymore,” but if you look deeply enough you’ll find that the problem is that they most likely would or could turn you on if YOU hadn’t negated your own ability to become stimulated and aroused through porn abuse!

Some TV addicts have found peace by physically getting rid of their TVs. I have a TV now (actually, I have three), but I rarely watch it and definitely couldn’t be considered addicted. I’ll watch movies with my family on occasion or relax in front of it after work maybe one night per week (if that). But I’m not glued to it during all my non-working waking hours like I was a few years back. Having a smart TV with the ability to stream Netflix over WiFi is a surefire way to become an addict, trust me! I got so fed up with wasting time on the endless TV shows and movies readily and abundantly available to me that I literally GAVE away a 48″ smart TV to my in-laws! And you know what? My life went on. It actually went on being more productive and fulfilling because I wasn’t distracted by the “idiot box.” Instead I was able to read more and give more attention to my wife and children.

Positive Relationships

I’m becoming convinced that addictions are very often a substitute for healthy intimate relationships. The results of studies by some of the more progressive and respectable addiction researchers in the field leaning towards this school of thought is astounding. When we maintain addictions, they fill the void that’s supposed to be filled with intimacy and connection with other people. We often see that when people overcome addictions, their relationship lives improve dramatically. Real human connection fills the void, just as it’s supposed to.

Addictions can also cause us to push people away without us realizing it. Deep down we feel some shame or guilt, or we fear getting found out if it’s a socially unacceptable addiction. But again our sneaky brains delude our rational thought processes and help us stay blind to our behaviors. This infects our relationship posture, and other people pick up on those negative feelings, making good connections less likely.

If you feel less worthy of social abundance because of any addictions, you may very well be pushing people away. Moreover, your sneaky brain can predict that too much intimacy could shed light on your hidden addictions, making them vulnerable to change, so by sabotaging your social life, it protects the addictions. Your brain is clever, and it will often give you seemingly rational reasons as to why you aren’t ready to socialize yet. One of the most common rationalizations is the (false) belief that you get into better physical shape before you’re ready to connect more. You don’t. You can connect with people starting today. To think otherwise is simply coming to a conclusion based on fear.

Consequently, a good way to stave off addictions as well as overcome then is to be more active in pursuing and maintaining healthy relationships. Would you rather connect deeply with a video game world or with some terrific friends face to face? Would you rather connect with a latte and the Internet or with a romantic partner? One side gives you short-term pleasure and it’s easier. The other side can create long-term happiness.

Now you might be thinking, “I’ve got you there! I know I can have both! I play video games with my friends, and I have coffee with my girlfriend (unless you’re a gamer! Lol. Jk.) So I’m doing the relating thing, too!”

Well, sorry, but that doesn’t cut it. It sounds perfectly logical, but it’s not. It’s just another phony rationalization from an addicted brain. Can you see why that might be so?

Turning the activity into a social activity drags us all down. We do include some relating, which is good in general, but if we’re relating on the basis of addiction, then what are we missing? Of course we’re missing relating on the basis of non-addiction. We’re missing what’s right in front of us (intimacy and connection) because these things are suppressed and blinded by the addictive habits.

Those hours spent in addiction-themed socialization can be a lot of fun. They’ll surely trigger our reward circuitry, and we get a double-whammy of a reward. We get rewarded for the addictive behavior, and we feel rewarded for the social aspect. The reason this seems like a good investment of time is because we’re confusing logic of short-term pleasure with the logic of long-term fulfillment.

Now if you are not an addict, then there’s nothing wrong with short-term pleasure. Mixing some pleasure into your social connections is all well and good. But you turn a corner when you mix in an addiction where some aspect of your behavior is compulsive. That’s when you talk endlessly about nothing of substance because the coffee makes you ramble, or you stay up late playing video games, throwing off your sleep schedule, and giving yourself an unproductive day, week, month, or year. In the long run, this sort of behavior will degrade your healthy relationships, especially relationships with non-addicts who may begin losing respect for you. Iv’e heard from a lot of men and women who’ve had to leave relationship partners because of addictions, often while their partners were still in denial about the addiction.

It’s never easy to let go for this reason because in the back of the initiator’s mind, there’s the dream of what an addiction-free relationship with their partner could be like… if only.

When we remove addiction from the picture, we create the space for a deeper and more fulfilling connection with people. We also expose the shallowness of connections that don’t really serve us. What does it say bout a connection that isn’t as good without gaming or coffee? What does it say about the quality of a relationship if going orgasm-free for a while leaves you feeling hollow and empty instead of deeply in love and grateful? Addictions so often mask substantial weaknesses that we don’t feel ready to face. It takes a lot of strength to face an addiction. It can take even more strength to face the demons hiding behind that addiction.

I’m not suggesting that addiction combined with relating always kills the relating, but I do think that in many cases, the relating would be more honest, more loving, and more powerful without the addiction in the picture. I’ve known of couples who’s entire relationship was based on prescription drugs and once the drugs were removed, the relationship fell apart. Of course there are always exceptions, but again, where’s the substance in a relationship that’s not based on the right things? An addiction can make a weak relationship seem strong, like giving you the delusion that pushing buttons and staring at a screen in concert with strangers on the Internet somehow makes you a band of rock heroes. An addiction can make a conversation seem fascinating and productive, when all you really did was act out a Seinfeld episode.

Since addictions take us out of alignment with truth, steal our power, and encumber our capacity to give and receive love, we must do our best to overcome them, no matter how difficult the challenge. Keep noticing the deviant, erroneous logic of addiction whenever a trigger is cued. Addiction always has a reason, an excuse, a hunger, and a seemingly good explanation to feed that hunger and keep you obedient to its impulses. It robs you of power, freedom, and connection while making it seem like an intelligent idea to do so. This is the lower part of yourself – the ego – you’ll need to keep challenging and questioning (and distrusting) if you’re to have any hope of pursuing the addiction-free life.

[Author’s Note: This is an original article published by personal development teacher and writer, Steve Pavlina, at www.StevePavlina.com. It has been edited and paraphrased with the original author’s express written permission for use on this site.]

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