Habit or Addiction?

Too much of anything can become problematic for us.

In many ways, our brains are very good at tricking us into ‘what they want’, despite our best intentions.

What our brains often want (and seek out), is short-term reward. An overly simplified explanation of our complex neuro-biology is the following:

Our brains release dopamine (a feel-good neurotransmitter) to help encourage us to keep doing certain activities.

The pleasure we get from eating food is an example. We eat food, which can give us a hit of dopamine. The food tastes good, we like it – and the dopamine hits released while eating gives us a sense of pleasure and reward. We learn to associate that reward with eating, and thus, we are encouraged to do it again.

Causes of addiction

A common issue faced by many people (myself included!) is the over-reliance on certain stimuli for that short-term reward. This is something that can occur through a variety of means – substance use, videogaming, gambling, sex, food, YouTube, internet use, phone apps, social media, etc. 

What makes addiction difficult is that in the current day and age we have an abundant supply of short-term reward around us, available at any given time. Most of the items listed above are designed to keep us coming back for more – and it works, because our brains crave the short-term reward!

Access to problematic activities is now easier than ever

In the present day, it is quite easy to access potentially addictive activities, which makes it all too easy to engage in compulsive behaviours typical of addiction. Think about mobile phones and their capacity to facilitate addictions. Various apps, games, internet use, gambling etc., all available any moment of the day.  

That is not to say each of these things are ‘bad’, ‘evil’, or even problematic. In fact, done in moderation, many such activities are pleasurable and generally cause no long-term issues. However, some care must be taken due to the capacity for such activities to become addictive. 

It is also important to mention that various states of wellbeing can predispose us to engaging in compulsive, problematic behaviours. Research suggests we are more vulnerable to addiction if we are feeling bored, disillusioned, depressed, experiencing grief, anxious, stressed, or even being in a happy or energetic mood. 

How do we determine if an activity is becoming problematic for us?

A helpful question to ask yourself is whether other areas of your life are being impacted by your habit. Missing out on seeing friends, being affected by it at work, having your mood affected by it, being unable to operate without it etc. This may be an indication that addressing the behaviour could be beneficial.

The next question is how to make changes to these problematic habits? This is something a psychologist can help with! While treatment for addiction will differ between each client, I have found the following principles important in addressing addiction across several different issues (drug use, videogaming, sexual issues, phone use, etc.).

Understanding your habits is important

Gaining an understanding of the potentially addictive nature of certain behaviours is essential. Awareness is an important first step in gaining more control of our problematic behaviours. Knowing that our brains will be seeking out the short-term reward, and will try to ‘trick’ us into doing so, gives us the opportunity to take some time, and choose a different path. We can also develop an awareness of the times when we are most vulnerable to succumbing to our problematic behaviours.

Develop alternative activities and habits

Cultivating other, less potentially problematic activities and hobbies that give us reward is another important step in reducing our reliance on potentially harmful activities. This does not mean abandoning all forms of short-term reward. Rather, striking a balance between the use of these short-term reward activities and longer-term reward activities is ideal.

You will likely have your own alternative activities, but some examples of these longer-term reward activities may be face-to-face interactions with friends, enjoying conversations with others, reading a book, physical exercise, cooking, work, etc. Some of these activities may not offer immediate short-term reward, but they are generally beneficial for us, and should leave us feeling good upon completion (or reflection). Importantly, they are also less likely to lead to compulsive use than the more addictive activities. 

If making some changes to some troubling habits is a goal of yours, getting in touch with a psychologist could be a great next step.

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