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Preventing Addictive Behaviours

· How To Guides,Goals,Change

In an earlier post we identified that there are different ways of categorising behavioural change. The type of change we want to make has a huge bearing on the type of strategies that will be effective in achieving success.

Behaviour can be categorised according to whether it is low or high effort and whether it is creating new behaviour or preventing old behaviour. 

Four types of behaviour, Novice, Expert, Habits, Addictions

In this article we want to focus on getting over addictions - the hardest of the four behaviour types. It is worth noting that many addictions have an underlying cause and that these can play a complex role in tackling the behaviour effectively. Anyone with a serious addiction should seek professional help in addition to their own efforts.

Understanding Addictions

All addictions start off as habits. They are behaviours that are engaged in regularly enough to feel comforting at some level. But what makes an addiction is the chemical impact it has on the body over time. The body soon becomes reliant on this chemical reaction and begins to crave it.

That doesn’t mean that all addictions have to be drug or chemical related. The body produces its own chemicals in response to situations and people can become addicted to these too. For example a gambler may feel a rush of excitement during a win that triggers his dopamine pathway (a reward chemical in the brain). The same could be said of people addicted other non drug activities; food, sex, exercise, video games and shopping to name a few.

What makes this an addiction rather than a habit is that over time the ‘amount needed’ to feel a chemical reward becomes more and more. People addicted to coffee to function may find that they used to feel awake in the morning after a single espresso. Over time the body develops tolerance to chemicals which means the individual needs more to feel the same effects. This is why addiction is so dangerous – because people push their behaviours further and further until it may reach a breaking point; overdoses of drugs, gambling away all their money, caffeine poisoning, sleep deprivation from gaming.

When an individual takes steps to break their addictions they also experience withdrawal symptoms. This is where the sudden lack of the behaviour, drug or chemical rewards is noticed by the body and it desperately craves it. An alcoholic is so used to having alcohol in their blood stream that to be without it is painfully irregular. The symptoms vary depending on what people are withdrawing from but they may find mood swings, irritability, sweating, nausea, insomnia, headache, anxiety and many more.

This is another reason why health professionals need to be involved in tackling addictions as they will know how to handle the withdrawal symptoms along the way.

Breaking Addictions

Reduction – some addictions to drugs may be dangerous to stop straight away. The intensity of withdrawal symptoms can be highly distressing to the mind and body which is why some addictions are phased out slowly. Take for instance smokers who cut down before quitting. However, this can be problematic for people who “Can’t do it a little bit.” In the case of alcoholics and gamblers, one drink or bet leads to many more so reduction does not tend to help.

Replacement – As part of the reduction process doctors may prescribe an alternative safer drug. Or people may swap one behaviour for something similar but not harmful. For instance smokers tend to need to put something in their mouths (inhalators, sweets), coffee addicts may switch to decaf to still feel like they are drinking coffee. This may result in a dependence on the new behaviour or substance.

A nicotine inhalator helps smokers cut down on cigarettes and it gives them a replacement for holding a cigarette.

Detox – completely abstaining from the behaviour or substance is the best long term solution but it is by no means easy. After the withdrawal symptoms have subsided the body will eventually begin to return to its normal chemical levels and tolerance will be reduced. This does come with the added concern that ‘falling off of the wagon’ can be dangerous if people forget their change in tolerance and have the same amount they used to before detoxing.

Finding root causes – in some cases these behaviours will have an underlying cause or trigger. For example some addicts do it to escape from a trauma, to feel a rush of reward instead of low self esteem, it may be a situational factor – a place, person or significant date. Working this out with a trained professional can help the person start to resist urges and perhaps even deal with the underlying cause itself.

Removing triggers – certain triggers that are identified can be removed altogether. Removing the substance from your environment, distancing yourself from stressors. Not everything can be avoided and those that can't will have to be tackled with other coping mechanisms.

Social support – successfully breaking an addiction is rarely done alone, especially if it is one with strong withdrawal symptoms. Having a network of people to remind you what your goals are, how far you have come, how much they care and that they are there to help can make a big difference in resisting temptation. Social support can sometimes be difficult because those people surrounding an addict may have been hurt (directly or indirectly), be ill equipped or not have the resources to support them.

Staying on 'The Wagon'

Getting rid of an old behaviour is often harder than creating a new one. It takes time to undo the urges and replace them with something healthy. When you undo a bad habit such as not biting your nails or not snacking between meals a small discretion is not a problem. Having one bad day does not undo the whole routine - it just means for the next day or so you have to focus on putting the routine back.

However, addictions tend to work differently. Once an addiction is out of the system, reintroducing it in even a small amount can bring the whole addiction flooding back. It is for this reason that once an addiction is overcome it is best to remain teetotal from that substance or activity.

I hope this provides interesting reading material and deepens your understanding. Once again if you or someone you know are trying to break an addiction then it is always better to utilise a professional service who will be trained in working through the process.

Image Credits

Torley, Virtual reality gaming, 2016

Tris Hussey, Nicotine inhaler, 2006

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