Have you ever wondered why you keep drinking, gambling or engaging in compulsive behaviour when you know it’s causing calamitous difficulties in your life and in the lives of those around you? Have you wondered if you have a bad habit or even – hold your breath – an addiction?
I’m going to speculate that your answer is…“Yes, I’ve wondered countless times and I still haven’t figured it out.”
Let’s consider a question or two to help you make sense of the senseless.
What happens when you first think about your substance or behaviour?
When the notion of using a substance or engaging in a certain behaviour first occurs to you, do you feel a pull toward the idea that is very pleasurable? Do you suddenly feel energized? As your anticipation grows stronger, do unpleasant feelings like anger, boredom, fear or loneliness begin to fade away?
If you answered “yes” to this question, you have your first clue as to why you keep repeating problematic behaviours despite getting into trouble with yourself and others, time and time again and why it’s a good idea to begin to consider how habits differ from addiction.
Habits don’t generate feelings of need - no anticipatory energy, no urge to jump right in. A habit is a routine action of any kind that you repeat on a fairly regular basis. The costs and benefits are about equal. Habits can be good or bad.
Addiction, on the other hand, is a relentless urge. You crave it even though experience has proven time and again that partaking of the experience is equivalent to lighting the fuse of a bomb. The resulting explosion of negative consequences will cause suffering to yourself and others. The costs are much greater than the benefits. An addiction feels wonderful in the moment but the rest of the experience is downhill. There are very few “good” addictions.
When does a habit turn into an addiction?
Behaviour can be quantified. It’s a matter of degree - one drink or ten, one bout of reckless spending or many. What is the extent of the behaviour?
It might look something like this.
Now let’s imagine at the 1 end, not much is happening and as we move along the path to the 10 end, the behaviour we are measuring is getting bigger, stronger or more intense.
Let’s measure the behaviour of, say, drinking.
One drink is very different than ten. Gaining one pound is less significant than gaining ten or twenty pounds. Let’s look at it the other way around. Traveling down the scale from having five drinks in an evening to one or two represents a big change in drinking behaviour. Traveling down the scale from being ten pounds overweight to only one pound is a change any dieter would celebrate.
Continuums flow back and forth. You can travel up the continuum from 1 to 10 or down the continuum from 10 to 1. And, of course, you can use any set of numbers you like.
How you feel about the behaviour is incredibly significant in terms of future decisions you might make. If you really like the behaviour or feel you need it, chances are good that you’ll travel up the line – from one drink to, perhaps, four or five.
If the behaviour is so-so or ho-hum, chances are good that you’ll travel down the continuum. Instead of washing the dishes three or four times every day in order to keep your kitchen neat, you might decide that once would be sufficient.
The benefits, real or imagined, are important in your decision-making process.
What is the strength of your desire or need to engage in the behaviour? How desperately do you want to do it?
Is it a take it or leave it relationship or do you feel a compelling need to engage in the behaviour? Is it an “I must have it” – “I must do it” relationship that is growing stronger, more powerful every second as you consider it?
At the lower end of the continuum, the behaviour (using or doing) is occasional and probably, appropriate. There is no intense relationship developing - no feeling of needing - that keeps growing stronger? This is the territory of habit.
At the mid to upper end of the scale, extreme desire and an intensely powerful pull has developed between you and your behaviour. Wanting or craving it keeps driving you to continue despite any negative consequences that might occur. It feels as if you’re out of control, as if you’re powerless over your own choices and decisions. And of course, dear reader, you are not out of control. It just feels that way. Endlessly giving in to the temptation could be a set up for addiction.
Habits reside at the lower end of the continuum. Habits do not generate a life or death need to continue or escalate the behaviour – no overwhelming desire.
Addictions, on the other hand, cannot exist without craving, that feeling of overwhelming need. These behaviours exist at the mid to upper end of the scale and wreak havoc in your life.
It’s really important to note there is no magic spot on the scale that shrieks “addiction”. The point of no return does not exist. Your own actions and the resulting consequences, positive and negative, provide all the information you need as to the state of your relationship with a substance or behaviour.
We are all creatures of habit: brushing teeth, getting exercise, going to work, being on time, etc. Forming habits is a normal and necessary behaviour of humans. Routine habits add structure and shape to your life. They reflect your pattern of day-to-day living. You don’t feel an overwhelming desire to engage in these daily habits, you perform them as a matter of routine from which you derive some measure of benefit, if not distinct pleasure. Habits don’t exact extreme costs. You might not like a habit very much but you feel it’s a worthwhile or necessary routine and you’re willing to continue – preparing your tax return, for example. Your relationship – the intensity of your desire is low.
Let’s consider one or two examples.
Keeping your body strong and healthy through good nutrition and exercise is an excellent habit. The benefits are many, the costs very few. Some days it’s tough getting started on your program but you feel good about yourself when you’ve finished. There’s no reluctance to stop. There’s no craving to begin again. A normal habit.
Feeling compelled to work out at the gym five times a day because you feel a kick of pleasure and positive expectations as soon as you think about the gym is not a normal habit. As soon as craving comes into the mix along with negative consequences, addiction is present. You feel an overwhelming compulsion to go to the gym well beyond doing so for health or fitness. An extremely strong relationship between you and the activity has developed. I know of one individual who had to make nine trips to the gym daily. Despite the fact that he had virtually no time for anyone or anything else, he still insisted that without this pattern of attendance his health would suffer. Just imagine what other areas of his life were suffering because of his extreme need to go to the gym the prescribed number of times.Purchasing needed items for the home and family is a normal, day to day behaviour, a necessary habit.
If your home is in mortgage default and you’re facing bankruptcy because of your needless spending behaviour but you keep on doing it anyway because you feel driven to escape negative feelings regardless of the costs to you and your family, we can say quite certainly that this behaviour has gone well beyond habit. The shopper is driven and gets a kick – a high- from acting on the preoccupation of shopping. Craving the activity is present. Negative consequences have almost taken over this individual’s life.
Remember, the power of the relationship and the necessary step of giving in to it is what drives the behaviour despite any negative consequences that may follow. The behaviour feels like it’s controlling you, not the other way around.
The Continuum is not static. There is movement up or down, as has been said.
Let’s consider another few questions.
Let’s see how you did:
Small changes in your placement on the continuum are happening all the time in your life. You only notice it, (or others notice it for you) when the behaviour in question is escalating due to cravings. Negative consequences begin taking a toll. When this happens, craving is driving the bus. Or perhaps what’s noticed is a lessening of the behaviour. Negative consequences are no longer an issue and cravings have become much less intense. In this case, you’re driving the bus and it feels really great.
The agent propelling you down the continuum is once again need – a very different need than above. You recognize you’re in very serious trouble and understand even bigger, more costly consequences will result if change, however reluctantly begun, is not accomplished. The need for change in a downward direction calls for persistence, a high degree of motivation, a belief that it is possible, compassionate support and a therapist to help you acquire the skills and strategies to expedite the process in a timely fashion.
The behaviour loses its power as you move down the continuum to a moderate level. The relationship is no longer extreme. It has lost much of its intensity.
Our Key Point:
It’s the relationship you have with your behaviour of choice that determines its frequency, quantity and duration. How powerful is the desire for you to have it or do it?
But, and it’s a big but: You are not powerless.
Always remember, if you don’t give in, the cravings and urges will lessen over time.
If you do succumb to the desire, the next time craving rolls into your awareness, it will be bigger, stronger and more difficult to resist.
Take it or leave it experience – no craving, no escalating negative consequences -- no problem. This is a habit, good or bad, but not an addiction.
Bottom line:” If I must have this experience regardless of the negative consequences, at any price to myself or others, because of the craving, I must say addiction is a strong possibility”
Do you remember the question that was asked at the beginning of this article?
“Why do I keep drinking, gambling or engaging in other compulsive behaviours the way I do even when I know that it’s causing calamitous difficulties in my life and the lives of my family members?”
Our Answer :
“You behave the way you do because craving is driving the bus. Even though you feel desperate and guilty about the behaviour, you feel compelled to engage in it. You give in. As a result, craving builds and the negative consequences continue.”
By using a continuum, a simple up and down scale, I hope you can see that habits and addictions begin life as a single entity – a habit. But the rate of the behaviour can move along the continuum in either direction, quickly or at a snail’s pace.
Addiction is no longer thought of as a static entity – once you’ve got it, you keep it for life, as was once believed Habits and addictions are subject to change just like everything else in this wild world of ours. Just because habits and addictions CAN change, doesn’t mean they WILL change. Habits can stay habits for life with little change. And as sad as it is to think about, some people might choose to do nothing about their problem behaviour and remain addicted.
Perhaps you’re already pondering an obvious question, namely:
Why Aren’t Negative Consequences Enough to Instigate Change? How Bad Does it Have to be Before I Kick My Butt into Gear?
What You Don’t Know About Habits Can Add Up To Addiction was originally published on www.MethadoneClinicUSA.com
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Imagine you’re taking the bus to work one morning. You just happen to hear the two people behind you talking.
Person A – “Did you hear about Janet? What a nightmare for her family!”
Person B – “I sure did. It’s the talk of the whole office! You know her dad’s an alcoholic, right? So it’s no wonder Janet is too.”
Person A – “Yeah! No wonder. I heard they’re trying to talk her into going away for treatment, you know, rehab. It’s a disease. You’ve got to go to rehab to get the treatment.
Person B – “I heard Janet’s still in denial and everyone at home is fit -to -be -tied about what to do. I saw “Intervention” last night. That’s what she needs. Just get in the limo and go. I bet she won’t go.”
Person A – “I’m glad no one in my family has ‘it’. Jeez, the genes you’re born with sure can wreck your life.”
Aren’t you glad your office is just ahead?
As a culture, the above dialogue is still pretty much what we hear, believe to be true and perpetuate. In other words, addiction is a ‘disease’ and as such requires a medical intervention – ‘treatment’ at a medical ‘rehabilitation’ centre. I hope to broaden your knowledge base considerably so the next time you hear a conversation like the one above, you will be able to intervene with some sorely needed facts about the causes of addiction.
What Causes Addiction?
Addiction results from a complex interaction of physical, emotional, social, and environmental influences. The combination of factors is different for everyone. It’s important to stress that addiction is never the result of a single factor, say, biology, alone. As the factors at play in an individual’s life vary, so does the level of risk. In other words, the conditions which combined in one person’s life and later resulted in addictive acting out are, undoubtedly, different from the factors that will put someone else at risk.
What Are These Individual Factors that Interact?
The behaviour that once seemed to support you through many of life’s experiences begins to turn against you. Without it, you experience craving. Unpleasant consequences begin in accumulate in your life.
What Are the Distinguishing Features of Addiction?
People frequently argue about who is addicted and who might just have a problem. How can you tell for sure?
Quick Answer: You can’t. This is one of the consequences of the disease or medical model. If you have a problem, you don’t have “it”- the disease. It has become a black/white, you’ve got it or you don’t issue. If you have “it” then treatment at rehab and lifelong abstinence is your only option. You will have “it” for the rest of your life. Problems, as we understand the common usage of the word, can be solved. This is one of the reasons people so fear the label of being “addicted.”
Just before we go over the distinguishing features of addiction, I feel it’s important to note that the greatest amount of damage to life, limb, productivity and personal contentment in our society is caused by those who “just have a problem”. Sometimes we get so caught up in absolutes, in black/white issues, we don’t see the forest for the trees. It’s not the label, it’s the behaviour and the negatives adding up in someone’s life that we need to pay attention to.
Several of these features will be present with addiction. Remember, we are individuals. People have different features of the disorder.
The urge, the craving, the overwhelming need, to engage in the behaviour whether it be using alcohol, drugs, gambling or any other excessive behaviour.
Preoccupation, Obsession or Fixation:
The individual can’t stop thinking about the behaviour. It battles with thoughts that reflect his or her better intentions, but eventually the urge to engage in the behaviour rules the day.
Despite every intention to stop or cut down, the behaviour happens over and over again.
The individual has experienced many negative consequences when engaging in the behaviour. Employer threats, family quarrels or breakdown, legal and financial hardships, tremendously embarrassing or endangering situations to self and others, all fail to bring about lasting change.
The “This time will be different” refrain leads the individual into yet another repetition of the same old pattern.
“Just one or at the most two” is heard over and over again. An individual may be able to control the behaviour in certain high demand situations like having dinner with the employer, but he or she can’t guarantee it 100% of the time. Usually it’s a no-win situation.
If you’re measuring your own behaviour by the above list of telling behaviours, make sure you’re being scrupulously honest with yourself. This is the time to stop rationalizing, minimizing and denying your behaviour. What others are telling you is true.
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If you’re reading this article I can almost guarantee that you’re not terribly interested in any discussion that features research findings on brain imaging or reward pathways. My guess is you’re seeking an explanation of the WHAT, WHY and HOW of addiction that makes sense to you. You’re hoping for one of those epiphany moments when the fog lifts and all is revealed.
The question being asked is
“Addiction: What is it? Why me? Why can’t I just stop? How come it showed up in my life and not in the life of my neighbour or my sister?”
I hope my words will enlighten you. Having had a relentless longing to understand these questions as they related to me personally fuelled my interest and years of study deepened my understanding. But definitions do not necessarily square with insight. I hope my attempt to put clothes on the definition will further your understanding of what is meant when we use the word ‘addiction’.
The Burning Question: What is Addiction?
The World Health Organization defines addiction as:
As you can see from the above definition, today it’s more helpful to take a broader view in order to more fully understand exactly what we mean when we speak of addiction. Think of addiction as a process of increasing desire that expresses itself in different ways through many different objects – alcohol and other drugs, gambling and spending, excessive exercising, shopping, working, gaming - even eating, as so many of us already know.
Increasing desire means that a relationship is developing between you and your substance or behaviour. It’s an intensely powerful relationship without which you cannot imagine living your life. The power of this relationship is so strong that it drives all else from your mind’s eye. You crave it relentlessly, persistently and without relief until you succumb to its demands. You repeat this pattern over and over again regardless of the wreckage it creates in your life and the lives of others.
Addiction describes an out of control relationship with an object of desire. The individual feels an overwhelming urge to engage in using the substance or doing the activity and therefore it continues over time in a repetitive pattern despite the negative consequences to self and/or others. Preoccupation, craving and negative consequences are hallmarks of the disorder.
And here’s the kicker. It’s not the substance or activity that causes addiction although it can unquestionably be said that certain substances lend themselves very easily to addiction, it’s the RELATIONSHIP, the level of desire that creates the situation of craving, compulsion and negative consequences.. If you want it desperately enough in your life, it is, for you, addicting.
Addiction, as a behaviour can be quantified. Think of it as a condition which resides somewhere on a scale from 1 to 10. At the 1 level, the involvement with the substance or activity is low. At the 10 end, the individual is in serious trouble and the effects of the behaviour being acted out are transforming his or her life. An individual can find his or her niche anywhere along the scale. Indeed, much of the debate within families can be tied to where on the scale individuals are placed by themselves and others. Rarely, is there agreement. There is no set point on the scale at which we can say the person has crossed the line into addiction territory. That point is different for everyone. Addiction is no longer thought of as a single, static disease entity – once you’ve got it, you’ve got it for life. You can move up or down the continuum. More addicted, if you will, at one point in time until you take some action to change your placement on the scale.
One can be more severely addicted than someone else, in other words, at or close to 10 on our scale. With work and a desire to change, however, this individual might well move from, say, an 8 to a 3 at which point addictive acting out is no longer an issue.
Before you roll your eyes and click another link on your computer let me say emphatically that all of this discussion about scales and placement matters not one whit. All you really need to know in order to understand if you have a problem is to ask yourself if you crave your substance or activity obsessively and once you succumb; you’re transported to a different place and time. After the event, there are the negative consequences to cope with that cost you and loved ones dearly. The costs in fact are grave - lost family, job, money, self-respect and on and on it goes. Despite your very best intentions, the cycle begins all over again and plays out each time in a very predictable fashion. Craving, loss of control, persistence and compulsion and ongoing negative consequences becomes the pattern of your life.
Ask the question “Why not me?” Everyone, and I mean everyone, can be vulnerable to addiction at some point in time. The more coping skills and supports in your life, the less likely vulnerability will have you reaching out for the same favoured substance or activity time and time again. You will be utilizing more effective methods to solve your problems and you will not be battling it out alone.
Again, I repeat: Everyone is vulnerable to addiction at some point in their life. When you’re battling stress and that feeling of desperation wells up in your gut, your level of vulnerability is escalating. The more adept you are at handling stress and the more resources and supports you can call on to help you, the lower your risk of spiraling into addictive behaviour. Remember, addiction is all about an intensely private and personal relationship. It’s just the two of you, together again. When you’re feeling stressed you seek comfort in what you know from experience works. If you reach for the same pacifier each time, the attachment grows. Soon it will be the craving that signals reaching out for the trusted friend. Before you know it, that friend is your greatest enemy.
Why Can’t I Just Stop?
Think about this for a moment. If every substance or activity were inherently addictive, then WE WOULD ALL be spinning out of control with something. This does not happen. Believe it or not, there are people who occasionally use heroin or cocaine and do not become dependent on it. Certainly no one would suggest you try such a thing, but it’s none the less, quite true. The heroin or cocaine addict, on the other hand, has a much different relationship with the substance than the occasional user. Life depends on it, not just to escape withdrawal, but to escape a life without the relationship.Addiction is not about the substance or activity at all. Addiction is the active back and forth engagement (relationship) you have with YOUR substance or YOUR activity. You are not passive in this relationship. It’s not that the ‘something’ has you in its grip. You have each other in a grip. And when that ‘something’ is not there, you crave and obsess about it until the situation is remedied. First cigarette, first sip, first bite of double -fudge cake. All of your earthly cares vanish in that moment. In what seems but a moment, you are swiftly returned to reality and facing, with horror, the calamitous results. Choruses of never again are heard. Promises are made again. Then the craving dragon breathes fire on you and once again you say: “This time will be different. I’ll control it this time. I’ll just have one or two.”
Here we go again. And the results:
We shudder in disgust. This is what addiction is. This powerful relationship that’s really impossible to adequately describe has the power to destroy lives and relationships like nothing else. And so when someone says, “just stop”, I hope you now have some idea of why that seems so impossible to someone who’s addicted.
I should also note that the three examples I’ve given above are people who have been addicted for some time. They are at the extreme end of the scale. If our scale measures behaviour from, say, 1 to 10, they would be close to the 10 end.
The more extreme your behaviour and the more negative consequences that are piling up around you, the more addicted you are. And yes, it’s possible to be mildly addicted. Let’s use our gambler again. Let’s say that it is only recently that his family has noticed he’s away from home more than usual. Sometimes, the older kids have to baby sit when he doesn’t come home early. His wife has noticed that a bill wasn’t paid on time and makes a mental note to inquire about it. Compared to the behaviour of our gambler above, the second example shows that consequences have begun – hours away from home, a slight shortage of money, not available to be with the little ones when mom is at work and the teenagers are playing hockey, but the relationship the gambler has with his activity is not nearly as all-powerful as gambler number 1. The downward spiral has begun. It will be up to the gambler himself how far into addictive living he goes.
What is Addiction?
I’ve used up a lot of your time and my energy to explain that… “Addiction is an out of control behaviour with a substance or activity. Craving drives the behaviour and it results in increasing negative consequences. The pattern is repeated persistently over time.”
I hope this article has increased your understanding of this highly complex and multifaceted problem.
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