Addictions are prevalent throughout our society; the more commonly talked about addictions include alcoholism, smoking, gambling, illegal drugs and misusing pharmaceutical drugs. There are, however, an array of much less talked about and recognised addictions such as porn, masturbation, shopping, exercise, tanning, tattoos, travel, gaming, work, sex, relationships, and even stealing!
The core aspect of an addiction is that it creates a temporary benefit in the sense of relief, or perhaps a better way to describe this could be a distraction in the way that it allows the person to temporarily disassociate and forget about their problems. Unfortunately, addictions often make these problems worse and can have a severely damaging impact on the rest of our lives. We’ve all heard of successful everyday people that are held in high regard within their community and career lives, yet can be found on a Friday night in a seedy underground club, risking it all on a hand of cards, or exercising to the point of obsession.
The truth is, sometimes it is easier to ‘run away’ from our problems than it is to face them head on and this is where ‘addictions’ become our friend. They shelter us in the form of an emotional and physical distraction that means we can avoid dealing with the underlying issue; as an example, the reason an alcoholic drinks is often not because they love the taste or physiological effects of alcohol – it’s a tool they associate with distracting themselves from the pain they feel inside about a particular issue – and as is common with all addictions, the addictive behaviour creates a temporary high that brings about short term elation at the cost of long term happiness.
Think of someone addicted to sex, as an example, which is an addiction that remains somewhat of a taboo in most societies. The person engaging in the addictive act, whatever the addiction, tends to receive a short-term physiological and emotional high… with sex addiction there is clear sense of connection, physical sensation and psychological pleasure – which can be healthy, but when this becomes an addiction, it often results in the person feeling hollow, depleted and in a diminished practical position (e.g. the gambler that bets his salary on a horse race).
The addictive act, whatever the addiction, doesn’t fill the emptiness that person tends to feel inside for very long. Similarly, a kleptomaniac that gets off on the thrill of stealing, has a very pronounced emotional high that is short lived, could come at a significant cost, and doesn’t really do anything to address the deeper issue that is causing the person to act out like this.
The person addicted to travel isn’t able to derive the sense of fulfillment most people feel by taking a holiday, as they are using it as a means of escapism. Travel becomes a drug that is there to distract, mask over a problem, or fill a void they don’t wish to address. Exercise can be a fantastically healthy pursuit, but not if one over indulges.
That’s not to say people cannot enjoy making love, travelling, exercising, the odd lottery ticket, or having a drink from time to time… these are all perfectly healthy in moderation; what changes in terms of a behaviour becoming addictive behaviour is the subconscious intent and meaning behind the act.
CHANGE THE ASSOCIATION
If you have an addiction, then broadly speaking, your brain currently links more pleasure than it does pain to that particular behaviour. If you were to imagine injecting yourself with heroin each night, a lot of people would shudder at the prospect because they associate a tremendous amount of pain with that behaviour; whereas, the sneakier addictions such as travel, work, exercise and even romance are sneaky because we can socially justify these to ourselves and our peers.
If you want to break free from your addiction, you must change your association, meaning you must start to associate more pain than pleasure with that activity. Think of it as a relationship break-up; a lot of times people will get ‘addicted’ to their ex partner… because they associate that person with pleasure rather than pain. Until their brain starts to associate that person with more pain than pleasure, they are trapped in a helpless state of relationship addiction, where they see ‘winning that person back’ as the answer to their problems.
The brain, in some ways, is a relatively basic computer that tricks us into engaging in activities that are bad for us because it neurologically and biochemically associates pleasure with the activity. The brain can’t always distinguish between the endorphin rush that comes with betting your life savings at a casino vs. doing a TED Talk. It just knows that endorphins = good!
If you notice, the one time people tend to make changes to their health (e.g. giving up smoking) is when they have had a health scare such as a heart attack or develop cancer. This is because they now associate more pain with smoking than they do gain – and this is why government’s all over the world are putting distressing images to highlight the physical effects of smoking; so that, subconsciously, people are starting to associate pain rather than pleasure with lighting up.
Until you rewire your thinking to associate more pain than pleasure with your addiction; it will be very hard to break free.
SUBSTITUTE THE ADDICTION
Whilst this probably isn’t sound medical advice, a lot of people find it helpful to substitute their addiction with a less damaging alternative, as an example, if someone is addicted to nicotine replacing tar containing cigarettes with e-cigs, such as those available here, can be a step in the right direction. The idea of going “cold turkey” isn’t always the best advice when it comes to dealing with an addiction, as there can be dangerous withdrawal symptoms and a gradual reduction (known as weaning off) is often a lot more manageable for most people. Indeed, if you think about people coming off heroin they are prescribed with a safer alternative to heroin and smokers are often prescribed nicorette patches that administer a small amount of nicotine to help curb physiological cravings.
Now, clearly, there are good things and bad things to substitute your addiction with – and often, people will jump between addictions, where they might give up smoking but then become addicted to sugar or gambling. In an ideal world, you want to find a healthy replacement that adds value to your life such as a particular sport or hobby.
Overcoming an addiction is a journey, and it can be a very difficult journey that requires significant willpower and external support – make sure you reach out to the right people for the support you require and recognise the difference between the ‘right support’ and the ‘wrong support’. All too often, we rely on people that we feel comfortable with, and often these people are battling with the very addiction we are trying to break free from. This article has suggested two fundamental practical things you can do to start breaking your addiction, but in reality, the best thing you can do is get some proper support from a medical professional and/or recovery group.