This is the first of a series of blogs about overcoming addiction. Addiction spreads to every kind of pleasurable behaviour: drinking, cigarettes, drugs both legal and illegal, gambling, internet, sex, food, even exercise and shopping. Some activities or substances can generate a feeling that is so powerful that life without that feeling may never seem worthwhile again. For example, many gamblers have a big win early in their career and then spend the rest of their life chasing that buzz.
Some addictions cause more damage to our health, our life, our work, our relationships, our finances than others. Whether you need help with an addiction depends on what you are addicted to and how damaging it is to your life and those around you. To put it another way, addiction to running is less damaging than addiction to heroin.
Why do addictions seem so hard to beat?
Our brain wants us to enjoy life. When we first do things that give us a real “buzz”, our brain retains a strong memory of this. So, when we have an opportunity to do this again, our brain strongly encourages us to do it by producing a brain hormone called dopamine. Dopamine, which is nature’s cocaine, drives us to achieve our goals in life. However, it can unfortunately drive us to addiction by making us strive for goals that give us only a short term fix. Our brain, driven by the memory of the “buzz” forces us to pursue those activities even when the habit is destroying our lives. The urge is so great that we “do it” even though the consequence will be far worse than the benefit. We may feel remorseful, but the dopamine-laced memory makes us give in again and again.
Not only that, but thee warm feelings of satisfaction we get after doing something — eating, laughing, having sex, or achieving some new understanding or skill — are produced by endorphin, another natural substance (which is similar to heroin). Working together these chemicals keep us interested in doing the biological functions that preserve the species, and stretch each one of us to learn and achieve.
In a well-balanced life, a reasonable amount of natural reward is felt by the human every day, but in a life where essential emotional needs are not met and abilities are not stretched, the rewards do not come and life feels flat and meaningless. This kind of life is rich territory for addictions to target, as every addictive substance or behaviour either stimulates a reward mechanism or provides a chemical reward directly. Dangerous activities stimulate production of dopamine, generating a feeling of exhilaration; injecting heroin gives a warm, cosy feeling like the natural feelings of satisfaction you might get after fulfilling any biologically necessary function.
Am I addicted?
Can you identify with any three of these statements?:
- A lot of time spent thinking about and getting involved in the drinking, gambling, etc.
- Unintentionally overdoing it – a binge, overdose, etc.
- You need more and more to satisfy you.
- Withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, tremors
- Use of the habit to relieve anxiety, tremours etc.
- Persistent efforts but failure to quit
- Negative impact on performance at work or socially.
- Continuing the habit even when destroying you physically and/or emotionally
If you can identify with three or more, it is probably time to seek out some help so that you can start overcoming addiction and get your life back on track.
But am I ready to quit?
It is said that there are five stages of change when it comes to stopping a bad habit so it is well worth stopping to consider exactly where you are in relation to this: The five stages of change are pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.
- Pre-contemplation is the stage at which there is no intention to change behaviour in the foreseeable future. Many individuals in this stage are unaware or not sufficiently aware of their problems.
- Contemplation is the stage in which people are aware that a problem exists and are seriously thinking about overcoming it but have not yet made a commitment to take action.
- Preparation is a stage that combines intention and behavioural criteria. Individuals in this stage are intending to take action in the next month and have unsuccessfully taken action in the past year.
- Action is the stage in which individuals modify their behaviour, experiences, or environment in order to overcome their problems. Action involves the most overt behavioural changes and requires considerable commitment of time and energy.
- Maintenance is the stage in which people work to prevent relapse and consolidate the gains attained during action. For addictive behaviours this stage extends from six months to an indeterminate period past the initial action.
Need some advice and support?
If you are struggling with overcoming addiction any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.