Our collective struggles sticking to new years resolutions raise an interesting question: why are intelligent and active adults reliant on pizza, sugar, alcohol, and other self-destructive activities for pleasure and entertainment? The crux of the answer is in a word – habit. A habit is an automatic response to improve well-being. Habits are learned and maintained by reinforcement circuits; neurotransmitters in our brain. The important thing to keep in mind about a habit is that it produces an immediate effect. Some habits have the added benefit of long-term positive consequences. Others, like the ones in question, produce negative long-term effects. So why do we maintain habits that we know will yield negative outcomes? Addiction.
Obviously none of us is going to pawn their car stereo for a Butterfinger. Well, maybe once, but I didn't need that answering machine anymore. There are varying degrees to addiction. Addiction is comprised of repeated reward-seeking behaviors despite negative consequences. Other key components to addiction are craving and dependence. Dependence signals that your brain becomes normal with a substance present, and experiences withdrawal when
it is not. Our brains over time become habituated to the neurotransmitters
released when we eat certain foods, or even think about those foods. When we
deprive ourselves of this, we react. And withdrawal isn't fun.
Another characteristic of addiction is that we start overvaluing the response we have to these habits. How excited do we get about a good dessert? Dessert fires off significantly more dopamine than reading a book, so our brains are convinced that this activity is far more rewarding. In the long run, we know this isn't the case. Further, so often we intertwine negative habits with positive ones. That is, drinking wine while hanging with friends. Or eating nachos while watching the game. This really doubles down on the perceived reward of an activity.
Accepting that you are an addict is far less important than breaking the habits that bring you down. But where to start? If a habit is automatic, then a mindful choice is the opposing action. First off, clarify your values. Write this down: What is important to you? What do you admire and value? Make the answers explicit. So, rather than writing, “I want to be fit and healthy,” try, “It is imperative that I model mindful choices for my children. I want to feel confident when I take my clothes off, or I value staying out of the hospital until I am least age 85.”
Next, make a list of your bad habits. That's right. Call yourself out. This will be an ongoing list. You may want to make it mobile so you can make notes when you notice yourself engaging in something that yields negative long term output. This serves two purposes: First, you can look closely at how your current habits are either getting you closer, or farther away from your ideals. Second, it's a lot easier to be mindful of your habits when you've gotten them down on paper.
Finally, a huge component in breaking an addiction is to increase the possibilities for reward outside the habits being broken. This is a fact: EFFORTS TO QUIT OR MODERATE BAD HABITS WILL FAIL IF THEY FOCUS SOLELY ON DEPRIVING ONESELF OF THE HABIT. That means, if you don't introduce new, rewarding habits into the mix, you will eventually fall back upon the tried and true. So rather than focusing on eating better this month, try and incorporate new (or perhaps old and disregarded) activities into your day-to-day life. Pick up an instrument, get some new video games, take a dance class, knit or crochet, or start watching Homeland. Anything that you can do that brings you
some immediate gratification without the long-term downsides is encouraged.
Ideas and suggestions are welcomed!
Making change is not easy. Particularly if these are long-standing habits, or if you have a genetic predisposition to addiction. It is recommended that you seek the help of a professional or a support group if you continue to struggle with addictions despite repeated attempts to make change. Please contact me if you require a referral.