Walking away from addiction

Old habits die hard

Why are we stuck repeating the same old patterns, the same destructive behaviours? Why do we seek out the same ‘fix’ or ‘hit’ when it is no longer working? How can we overcome addiction and take back control?

What we know about addiction

Addiction is a habit, a response, something we seek out without thinking about it. It bypasses rational thought and conscious decision-making. It taps into the reward mechanism of the brain — essentially hijacking it – so our priority and focus is on seeking out that reward, potentially at the expense of other things.

Addiction can take many forms, from substances like alcohol, cigarettes, opiates, or other drugs, through to activities like gambling, shopping, sex or pornography, or even to our smart phones: anything that triggers our brain’s reward system.

Addiction – unmet needs

We all have fundamental physical and emotional needs. Physical needs include a nutritious diet, regular exercise, restorative sleep, and shelter. Emotional needs include security, attention, and sense of control, connectedness, privacy, intimacy, status, achievement, self-efficacy, and being mentally and physically challenged. When these needs are not being met, we experience stress or discomfort.

Emotions are essentially stimuli for action. They are a signal for us to take action to get a particular need met. For example, when we are hungry, we seek out food. When we are tired, we rest. When we need emotional support, we seek out company. When we feel bad, emotionally or physically, we look for something to make us feel better. In the case of an addiction, we seek something that fires up the reward centres of the brain. Firing up the reward centres of our brain can temporarily reduce stress or discomfort.

However, the sense of reward is not actually meeting our underlying needs. In addition, when our limited attention and resources are taken up trying to feed the reward centres of our brains, this can prevent us getting other needs met, and we are stuck in an unhelpful cycle.

When a habit becomes a problem

Just doing what feels good is not necessarily a problem. It only becomes a problem when the action or source of addiction prevents us getting other needs met, or interferes with our wellbeing in other ways, for instance, by damaging our health, relationships, or careers.

Through repetition, we strengthen that connection or pathway, forming a belief that the addiction will provide the reward, and that the reward will meet a need. This is why anticipation is so integral to addiction.

Addiction is unconscious

The expectation or belief that the addiction will meet our needs is unconscious. That is why even when we know the behaviour is not rational and may have negative consequences, we do it anyway. The urge and subsequent action is automatic, essentially unconscious, or pre-conscious. That is why people can struggle to change.

Consciously they want to alter their behaviour, but feel unable to do so. To overcome this, we need to work instead at the emotional (pre-thought) level, to shift expectations and the (unconscious) emotional commitment to the habit.

What can we do to break through addiction?

Addiction is not universal, that is, different people can use the same substances, perform the same actions, but not everyone will become addicted. Addiction is also situational, that is the person’s environment influences whether they become addicted. This gives us hope, because it tells us it is possible to break through addiction, to change old habits and patterns of behaviour.

People who have successfully walked away from or avoided addiction provide a model for success. As Johnathan Hari describes in his TED talk Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong, addiction is about bonding, about needing connection, and getting our fundamental human needs met.

When tackling addiction, we need to consider the entire picture: what is it about this person’s situation that helps maintain their habit? How can they get their needs met in healthier ways?

Changing Expectations – Hypnotherapy can help shift your expectations that the addiction and old patterns of behaviour will meet your needs, replacing them with realistic expectations, and positive feelings of control, identity and self-worth. This is where hypnosis can be very effective as it helps you make changes at the pre-conscious level.

Changing Lifestyle – Look at the bigger picture. What physical and emotional needs is the addiction trying to meet? What needs are not being met at all, or being met poorly? How can you meet those needs in more appropriate and healthier ways? What changes can you make, what resources and relationships are available to you? This is where a holistic and solution-focused approach can help.

Coping Strategies – Hypnotherapy can help lower emotional arousal at the pre-conscious level, and help you learn and rehearse effective strategies for change. When stressed, anxious, depressed, when our emotional needs are not being met, we tend to operate in fight-or-flight mode. Thinking shuts down. We reach automatically for the quick fix, even when we know it is not helping. On the other hand, when our emotional arousal is lower, we create space to make effective decisions, conscious and unconscious. We stop operating on a fight-flight pattern, expand our options for responding and getting our needs met.

With the right tools and support, it is possible to walk away from addiction, and you don’t have to do it alone.


About the author

Christine offers mindfulness and hypnotherapy in beautiful Byron Bay. Skype counselling sessions also available. Learn more.