The Deceptive Road To Addiction

It isn’t something we plan to be. Addicted. It creeps in silently. We are usually unaware until damage has been done. Those close to us tend to recognize it first and confront us about it. “Isn’t that enough beer for tonight? “Really? Another one?”. “You have been on that game all day, you should go outside and get some exercise”. “If you keep eating all those M&M’s you will turn into one”.  Are these phrases not all too familiar? Although well intended, all we hear after a while are judgments, questions, and nagging. Instead of taking responsibility and changing our behavior, we tend to deny, avoid, minimize, justify or retaliate and continue blindly along a destructive path. We may have thoughts like: “I don’t have a problem”, “I deserve a reward” or “It’s just one more.”

 

Do you have unhealthy habits? Have you ever been addicted to something? Few people would be able to say they have never had an unhealthy habit or been addicted to something at some point in their life. Let’s be honest. Unhealthy habits and addictions can come in many shapes, sizes and disguises. We can become addicted to gaming, shopping, social media, drugs and alcohol, medication, caffeine, our mobile phones, and chocolate to name a few.

 

The 2014 documentary named, That Sugar Film, explains how easily consuming sugar becomes an unhealthy habit without us realizing it:

 

“Sugar activates the same reward areas as nicotine, cocaine and sex! But it doesn't last long. Now, if some of us eat sugary foods often enough and establish this happy feeling of reward, it can create subconscious or mindless habits.”

 

A behaviour becomes more than an unhealthy habit and is considered an addiction if someone continues to engage in an activity that is rewarding, despite significant negative consequences it has on their health and wellbeing, and important areas of their life such as work, family, school. (1)

 

A lot of research has gone into understanding addiction and how to tackle this complex issue. Some individuals are also genetically more vulnerable to develop addictions.

People all have different personalities, and grew up in different environments, that may also play a role. Some men tend to be drawn to a challenge. I like to put a lot of energy into something I enjoy or find challenging. Once I start, it can be hard to get me to stop. It is almost like a primal urge to hunt and get that feeling of gratification when you get the reward.

 

Recovering from addictions can be a very difficult journey.  Research demonstrates that there are actual changes that take place in an individual’s brain when addicted to something! The human brain is wired so that when a person does something that is pleasurable, the brain’s reward system is activated. A neurotransmitter called dopamine is released and as a result the person wants to do it again. This helps people do things that are necessary for survival such as eating and drinking. Drugs or compulsive behaviour like gambling, gaming, or shopping also activates the brain’s reward system and gives people feelings of pleasure or what some describe as a ‘high’.  This is how an addiction cycle can develop. However, these unhealthy behaviours actually change how natural chemicals work in the brain’s “pleasure center”. It can be very challenging to break an addiction cycle.

 

The world-renowned society, Alcoholics Anonymous, is well known for their Twelve Steps framework.  Their first step to change and recovery involves an individual admitting that they have an addiction and that there is a problem. Seeking support is courageous and an important part of recovery. It is also important to be proactive where possible.  To put the brakes on and become more aware of unhealthy habits in your everyday life so that you can act fast. An unhealthy habit can easily become a slippery slope that can develop into an addiction.

 

Not only is it wise to recognize and change unhealthy habits, but it is also crucial to form healthy habits in your life. When is the last time you decided to develop a new healthy habit in your life? To go for a walk every morning, or drink water with dinner instead of wine? There is a myth that it takes 21 days to form a new habit. We need to have realistic expectations of how long it takes to form a new habit.  Research on forming healthy habits conducted by psychologist, Dr Phillippa Lally and her colleagues, suggested that it can take approximately 66 days to form a new habit. Her findings also indicate that forming healthy habits are more likely if we repeat a simple behavior daily in the same context. It is encouraging to know that if you can persevere for about ten weeks, it is likely that a new behaviour will become ‘second nature’. (2)

 

If you are engaging in unhealthy habits, and you recognize some red flags that this is becoming an addiction, it is never too late to stop. If this is you, I would like to encourage you to put that game controller down, throw out that pack of cigarettes, pour that beer down the sink, disconnect your internet, and leave work at work! Instead, spend time in nature, do some mindful breathing, drink more water, and be present. Be proactive where possible. Seek help when needed.

  1. “Addiction.” (n.d.). Psychology Today. Accessed 11 April, 2019.

  2.  Lally P, van Jaarsveld CHM, Potts HWW, Wardle J. How are habits formed: modelling habit formation in the real world. Euro J Soc Psychol. 2010; 40:998–1009. [Google Scholar]