Transforming Habits and Addiction
It’s that time of year again when we think about making New Years resolutions. We mean to improve our lives – either by stopping what we “don’t like”, such as overeating, or by doing what we think will benefit us, like exercise. Such good intentions don’t always turn out as we hope, however, why does this happen? How do we change? Let’s look at what evolutionary biology, medicine, and the human sciences have to say.
All biological organisms are driven to adapt to their environment for survival. Organic systems seek balance. When overly stressed, people find ways to cope -by using specific behaviors to reestablish homeostasis. Paradoxically, these helpful behaviors can be damaging, symptoms of, as well as creative solutions to, a social and/or emotional problem. The body is biologically and evolutionarily prone to form addictions, which is why change is so difficult to effect.
The brain relies on endorphin hormones to regulate physical and emotional stress and pain. The feeling of pleasure, which we all seek, is dependent on chemistry. This helps explain why people sometimes stay in unhealthy relationships. So-called “bad” habits serve a function; by regulating our emotions and uncomfortable feelings, they help us avoid pain and taking action and self-responsibility. When a temporary coping strategy becomes a chronic habit and is no longer reversible it’s an addiction. Unfortunately, this system of addiction covers over your ability to feel your native natural body-based joy – your best option!
To overcome addictions, their root causes must be uncovered. Whether a habit is behavioral, like biting one’s nails, or substance-related, like alcohol, the body, the mind and the environment are intertwined. So all three areas need to be included in your plan. Look at the context within which the habit exists and what role it plays. What need does it fulfill? Look for the triggers—the behaviors and relationships surrounding it; when, how and where you get stressed. Ask yourself what was the purpose of the habit and what do you get out of it? Dietary changes play an important part in changing the body chemistry, and should be included along with psychological and social work. Studies show that acupuncture and herbal medicine are very helpful in eliminating the side effects of withdrawal from addictions. Emotional support plays a central part in programs like AA, along with group therapy and community support. Research also shows that yoga and exercise help significantly.
One important key to success is – once you have a plan, don’t consult your feelings about what to do. This can throw you off course. Feel what you feel, but don’t allow feelings to highjack you and your goals! Empirical studies have shown that new behaviors take about three months to become routine. The first two or three days are the most difficult when you make changes. So stay with it, be accepting of what you find, but follow the plan and get support!
To summarize: 1) break the pattern of behavior by creating new behaviors that are aligned with your goals and values; 2) change the body’s chemistry; 3) learn to manage your emotions by processing rather than repressing them. This means you will have to look honestly at what you’re avoiding in the present. It’s a creative process and can’t be done in isolation from relationships and lifestyle. For serious habits and addictions, making a resolution to change without a plan usually fails. You need a clear goal and plan of action, as well as people that care enough about YOU to support your goals. The goal is to develop new healthier habits that satisfy your natural desires and needs. If you just drop old behaviors without replacing them with something new, the chances of failure greatly increase. You will need to replace the old habits or routine with new ones. Once you break a habit that helped maintain and manage your life, what you previously avoided comes up very quickly. Finally, in order to move forward you need a healthy self to lead. A healthy Self is free to consciously choose and not be controlled by unconscious forces and past habits. The use of will power alone is rarely enough, especially in cases like substance addiction where substances have become so functionally part of a person that their very survival seems to depend on it. Some addictions require professional medical help and counseling. Be accepting of what you find, but stick with your plan and get support.