Understanding an addiction
In order to eliminate an addiction you first have to understand how it works.
Human beings can get addicted to almost anything: sex, drugs, alcohol, nicotine, food, gambling, shopping, wrist-slashing, cosmetic surgery and social media. Most of what follows applies to alcohol addiction.
The first thing to realise is that addictions are actually obsessions. Obsessions work through tunnel vision, making the problem seem more urgent than it really. The key to breaking addictions is to break out of the inertia, habit and repetitive thoughts that come with the craving, and connect back to the wider world.
Addictions are maintained through a Hypnotic Addictive Inner Voice. This can be incredibly powerful as well as seductive. It says things like:
‘Go on. You deserve it…’
‘Just one more…’
‘No one will know…’
‘The alternative is just too boring…’
‘You can’t make it through the night without a drink…’
‘It’s no use resisting – you know you’re going to have one…’
The more you listen to this voice and follow its commands the stronger it gets. I call this ‘feeding the dragon’. The dragon started off as a worm but grew and grew until it had you in its tentacles. Attention is its fertiliser. Disobeying it (or defusing from it) is its weedkiller.
If you allow the dragon to get a hold on you then your original liking will turn into a habit. I have worked with many addicts over the past 20 years and it’s strange how predictable their addictive habits are. They will use the same beverages, in the same quantities, with the same people, at the same places, at the same times, every day of their lives. But you can break a habit, provided you have something better to replace it with.
Once a habit turns into an addiction the problem becomes part of your personality. Meaning you start to define yourself as a person who is a slave to something else. This process may be helped along by agencies like Alcoholics Anonymous and medical services which label the person as ‘alcoholic’, an ‘addict’, or even a ‘dipsomaniac’. But this labelling process feeds the idea that people are defective in some way.
Addiction has a physical basis
The next thing to understand about an addiction is that it’s not all in the mind. That there is a physical basis for the craving (using alcohol as an example) which is relatively easy to understand. So here goes.
Alcohol depletes the brain of GABA – a neurotransmitter which regulates alertness. And when that happens you will feel restless, agitated and anxious. And the Hypnotic Addictive Inner Voice Inner Voice will interpret that problem as a cue for another drink. Which means that you create even more GABA depletion, while also feeding your dragon. Thereby creating a loop. The longer the loop develops, the more entrenched the craving.
Other brain mechanisms linked to addiction are described in an article here.
An addiction uses life-problems as an excuse
You may also have started using more than was good for you due to other factors in your life. Any of which can become ‘reasons’ to enter into addictive behaviour. Some of these include:
- Work/unemployment issues
- Family/relationship conflicts
- Financial hardship
- Social deprivation
- Illness or handicap
- Stagnation, or loss of direction
- Stress, worry and panic
- Low fulfilment
- Boredom, depression and persistent low mood
Any and each of these reasons can become an excuse used by the Addictive Inner Voice to demand another ‘fix’. In fact addictions do not fix anything. Rather, they are a form of escapism that make it less likely that problems will solve.
You can undermine an addiction by addressing any of these problems in life, as well as the limiting judgments you have about them.
The stranglehold of habit that keeps people trapped in addiction
The final factor that feeds the addiction is also related to the habit that is formed around it: the people, places, time zones, outlets and other cues that cue the addictive voice. For example, one alcohol drinker I saw only drank a bottle of blue-label vodka and six pints of lager (same brand) each day. He always started at 11 am and stopped between 10 pm and 11 pm when he fell asleep. He always drank in one of two pubs, one near his place of work, the other near his home. Always with the same fellow drinkers from his office or neighbourhood. He would supplement his supplies by buying lager and vodka from the same supermarket every Saturday morning. He rarely went over or under his allocated daily dose of alcohol. In fact he looked disgusted when I asked him why he never drank more than one bottle of vodka.
“That would be too much,” he said.
Thereby demonstrating that his habit was tightly controlled. And if you can control a habit one way, you can control it in another.
The Hypnotic Addictive Inner Voice.
The Addictive voice is hypnotic in the way it says the same seductive, mesmerising things every day. We can grow so used to it that we don’t notice it consciously any more. To break an addiction you have to first notice it, then write down the things it tells you. Then you can either defuse from it, or challenge it, or do both. Asking yourself an important question as you do so:
“Who will I be when I no longer pay attention to that voice?”
Some possible answers include:
- I will be free.
- I will be happy.
- I will have my health back.
- I will repair my relationships.
- I will have time and energy to do the things that are really important to me.
- I will be back in control of my life
Write those answers down and form a plan to get going on them.
You can weaken the power of the voice by taking a ridiculous character from a movie or a cartoon show (say, Homer Simpson) and imagine hearing the addictive voice that way.
There are endless ways in which you can mess around with the Addictive Voice. Using a boring voice that puts you to sleep has worked for quite a few of my clients.
Reduce exposure to your danger zones
The danger zones are any places where you buy or consume, or meet people and situations that trigger the addictive voice. These include bars, shops, phone numbers, web-sites and other users. If you do go there then be ready to defuse from the addictive voice when you get there.
Most addictions are tediously predictable. They involve the same substances, in the same quantities, with the same people, in the same places, at the same time of day. If you avoid those places, people and times then you are less likely to use.
Break the habit of addiction.
Rehab centres do this quite well – for a short period of time. If you go to an alcohol rehab centre for a few weeks you won’t be able to drink alcohol while you are in there. Instead you will be given sedative drugs to help you on withdrawal. You will also be given plenty to do: group sessions, light work, exercise programs, meditation classes and the like.
A well-run rehab centre will also teach you how to stay away from addictive behaviour when you release. Unfortunately many centres fail at this, hence the high relapse rate. If you can’t afford to go to a rehab centres there are plenty of ways to can work on breaking the habit (or reducing it), in addition to staying away from the danger zones.
a) if you just want to reduce your habit rather than eliminating it, then increase the amount of time between one indulgence and the next. If you consume every day then make it every other day. If you consume every hour then make it every other hour. If you drink alcohol in a bar with friends then have a soft drink between each consumption.
b) at the appointed hour when you start using, whether that is 9 am or 6 pm, find another (rewarding) activity to follow at that time. You can go to the gym, take a cycle ride, spend time with people you love, or you can meditate for example.
In general, when you are breaking an addictive habit, it is a good idea to keep busy. The addictive voice has a way of breaking in when people are idle.
Use calming techniques.
To counter the agitation that often comes with a reduction in consumption, calming techniques are called for. These include mindfulness routines, relaxation techniques, emotional freedom techniques, acupuncture, yoga, tai chi and many other disciplines.
Rediscover your passion.
This really goes back to the person you are going to become when you no longer listen to the addictive voice. Remember, also that an addiction is something people do when they are not following their passion. Another way of putting it is that they are neglecting their personal genius.
Get professional help for your addiction.
It is not absolutely necessary to see a therapist in order to become sober. If you follow the advice in this article you can do it yourself. But professional help can make things a lot easier for you if you struggle.
The alcoholic’s problem is not alcohol but sobriety. Gregory Bateson.
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