Dealing with personal addictions

By Fouad Alaa

WE ALL have at least one behavioral addiction we wish to change or eliminate but it always seems like a painful task. Substance addictions seem easier to handle since there are many systematic ways or support systems in place to quit or stop. For behavioral addictions there are relatively none.


I have two major addictions; one is taking comfort in distractions and the closest I can describe the other is being ‘addicted to fun’.


Whenever I have a heavy work load or something stress-inducing, I take comfort in distracting myself by sleeping, playing games, watching TV shows, etc. Although I may feel refreshed afterwards, it results in getting barely anything done.


As for being addicted to fun it makes me maximize any ‘fun’ to an almost unhealthy level, but it also falls under the first addiction since it always starts off as a distraction method.


Only recently have I realised the nature and origins of my behavioral addictions after analysing my past behaviors and their consequences.


I found out that I surrounded myself with too many distractions, making me more vulnerable to them. My view of my “habit” changed and as I became more aware of the problem I decided that this year would be the year to declare war over that behavior.


Like many people, I decided to look online to research effective methods to overcome my addiction to distractions. And to my surprise, all the results came back with no management guidelines or methods except therapy, which would only apply to extreme cases but not to my ‘average Joe’ addiction.


After a few hours, the only conclusion I reached was that unless I had an outlandish behavioral addiction, the only way I could help myself was to adapt methods of overcoming substance addiction to suit my own personal addiction.


As a typical science nerd, having the answer without answering the ‘how’ question was unacceptable. So I went back to the roots.


The science behind addiction


The brain registers any type of pleasure the same way, which is through the release of dopamine.


Dopamine does not only contribute to the experience of pleasure, but also plays a key role in learning and memory: two key elements needed to switch from enjoying something to becoming addicted to it. Repeated exposure to an addictive behavior links liking something to wanting it, which drives us to go after it.


In nature, rewards usually come only with time and effort. Addictive behaviors provide a quick and reliable shortcut. The brain responds by producing less dopamine, an adaptation similar to turning the volume down on a loudspeaker when the noise becomes too loud. The pleasure associated with an addictive behavior becomes less, but the memory (the wanting) remains.


According to the brain, “the brain is the most important organ in the human body”. It is the only organ smart enough to describe itself. After understanding how the brain gets addicted to certain behaviors, I can understand how to trick the brain into submission.


As impressive as the human brain can be, its weakness is that of a computer’s: it is systematic and always follows rules.


The method


1. Awareness


To be able to deal with any behavioral addiction is to be completely aware of its existence. Not everyone is aware that they have a problem, and rationalisations can make the problem seem less than it actually is. A careful analysis of general past behaviors should reveal signs of behavioral addiction.


What were the constant negative or positive behaviors that people observed about you?


The easiest way to identify negative behavior is by recalling negative comments or feedback that is behavior-related and agreed upon by a majority of people, especially if you don’t believe it’s entirely true.


After figuring out that behavior, the next step is to find out its roots which can range from adrenalin-seeking, distracting, euphoric, etc. The point is to be aware that it’s not a character flaw, it’s a character trait that needs modifying.


2. Classification


Most behavioral addictions don’t always start off as negative behaviors; some can be normal habits that turn negative when they have detrimental consequences.


While it is normal for people to enjoy shopping or collecting items of value, it is overdoing it that turns them into shopaholics and hoarders. On the other hand, some behavioral addictions always have a negative effect regardless of their origin or purpose. Shoplifting and deliberate self-harm are examples of behaviors that results in personal and/or health issues that fall under ‘negative’ addictions.


3. Judgment calls


The compulsion to carry out the same behaviour is at its highest when we are either really happy or really sad.


When you are already happy the behavior can act as a boost to the existing state of satisfaction, and when you are sad the behavior can act as a reduction of the bad mood.


You can reduce the negative aspects of an addictive behavior by restraining yourself from doing it when you are feeling down, which would cut the link between the rewarding aspect of the behavior and the situation.


In time your brain will adapt to the behavior not being rewarding in times of depression or sadness, turning it from a normal behavior gone bad to just a normal behavior.


The best way to deal with slippery slope addictive behaviors is to know exactly when to control them. The most effective way to deal with my distraction addiction is to always set a limit to any ‘fun’ activity I am planning to do. For example, whenever I have a deadline on a task and I watch a 20 min show to clear my mind, I started limiting myself to just one episode otherwise I would just watch an entire season.


The key point is to understand that problems usually are transient, and perhaps most importantly, to acknowledge that life is not always supposed to be pleasurable.


Shedding off old skin


All reptiles go through the phase of shedding skin. This shedding is not without purpose; snakes replace their skins to allow for growth, as well as to remove parasites along with the old skin.


As for us, we do the same thing by modifying our behavior and changing it. Behavioral changes for the better allow us to grow and move on from negative past experiences caused by our old behaviors.


By being aware of our negative behavior, analysing our past mistakes, and controlling or channeling that negativity into something positive, we can easily turn a character flaw to a positive characteristic.









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2 Responses

  1. susan mccann says:

    I so agree with you about how we associate behaviour with certain emotions. In NLP (Neurolinguistic programming) they call this anchoring. As you say our brain makes nuerol pathways that are associated with a certain behaviour. We can use NLP to help us understand and de-programme the unwanted behaviour. However we need to anchor new more useful behaviours to replace them. You are right that the first step is to be aware of our behaviour and analyse what benefit it gives us. This can help us to channel a more positive behaviour to meet that need. We all have habits both good and bad, habits help us to just do things without thinking about them, like brushing our teeth or eating and swallowing, we do these on auto pilot. Our busy lives need routines, they make life easier. We just need to make sure that these help us the way WE want them too, and not allow them to get out of hand and end up running us.

  2. Tammy Soong says:

    You know, this is a very interesting theory. Most people look at, say, ADD as a neurological disorder, but maybe it should be approached from an addiction standpoint. It’s basically how we approached our son’s autism diagnosis — behavioral modification. And it changes the brain as well.

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