Interrupting Addiction to Reclaim Your Life

Many of our new year’s resolutions and our goals to change are informed by our desire to overcome addiction in our lives. Whether it be to quit the traditional “bad” kind or free ourselves from the more subtle or accepted addictions that started as habits and now have a negative impact on our lives. As a bridge from our previous series – New Year, New You – to our new series in March on Disorders, let’s look at the impact that addiction can have on anyone’s life, and take on board some advice from therapist Teyhou Smyth on how we can overcome it.

Have you ever tried to give up something you are addicted to? 

If so, you are in good company. In a 2013 study it was found that 21.6 million Americans over age 12 struggle with drug and alcohol addiction. In Ireland we know that alcohol abuse is endemic and drug-use is on the rise among young people. These astronomical numbers don’t even count the millions of others who struggle with behavioural addictions such as gambling, sex, gaming, overeating and smoking. 

Addiction is so common in our culture. 

We barely recognise it in our own lives until it becomes a major problem. It happens gradually. What starts as self-soothing after a bad day at work, for example, turns into a coping strategy and morphs into habitual behaviour. 

Soon, psychological addictions turn into physiological dependence, which further complicates the issue. We are creatures of habit. When something works, we keep doing it. 

Even when we know a behaviour is detrimental, if it serves a physical, emotional or psychological need it is hard to convince ourselves that it isn’t worth doing. This is especially true when we become dependent on substances and there is a biochemical addiction. 

Do you self-soothe with substances or behaviours? 

Even if you don’t realize it, the answer may be yes. That’s not to say that we’re all addicts, but we are reliant on certain factors for comfort. Your morning cup (or cups) of coffee? You’re probably addicted. 

Your body has become dependent on the caffeine and psychologically it has become a ritual that you associate with waking up and starting the day. Do you use social media? Internet addiction is becoming increasingly common, as we frequently use technology in our daily lives and it has become an extension of our work, home conveniences and social life. 

Normal use transforms into dependence and addiction when it becomes a pathology. 

Something is considered ‘pathology’ when it deviates from a healthy norm and negatively impacts one’s life. 

Our typically benign behaviours (having a drink with dinner, catching up with friends on social media or having sex with our partner) is perfectly fine until it becomes a drive to indulge beyond the norm and causes problems in life. 

When a substance or behaviour becomes a primary focus and other important parts of life are disregarded, it has transformed into addiction. 

An addiction can rise to the level of needing external intervention, but not always. 

If you are in the initial stages of an addiction and feel ready to examine the behaviour and release it, you may be able to use your own internal resources and support systems to help redirect your behaviour toward normalcy. 

It is important, however, to recognize when you have moved beyond the point of being able to reverse an addiction on your own and seek professional help and services. 

Observing Addiction

As you begin to explore a set of behaviours, ask yourself a few questions about it to determine the underlying causes of the dependency.

Does my family have a history of addiction or dependence? 

While family history isn’t always a predictor of addiction, it can be a factor for some and often there is genetic influence involved with chemical dependency.

What are my patterns of behaviour? 

Pay attention to the frequency, duration and intensity of your behaviour. Dependency and addiction include an element of obsessiveness and urgency. Being “able to quit” for a short time doesn’t mean you are in the clear. 

Often the addicted mind can justify excessive use later by going through temporary periods of abstinence. These types of games are based in addictive thoughts sneaking in and creating an avenue for abuse of a substance or excessive behaviour. 

What is it doing for me? 

It is important to know what your behaviour is doing for you in order to change it. Does engaging in the addiction relieve stress? Make you feel powerful? Relax you? Make you forget things that are bothering you? 

What are the consequences I am facing? 

If you are looking at changing a pattern of behaviour that has become addictive for you, it is probably because you have dealt with consequences from the behaviour or fear future consequences. 

What sort of toll will this behaviour take in the long run? Will it impact your health? Your relationships? Self-esteem? Have you already had consequences in your life as a result of this behaviour?

When you consider stopping the behaviour, how do you feel and what thoughts emerge for you? 

Generally, the thought of stopping an addiction brings a lot of fear, sadness, anger and even grief. The complexities of emotion that come with addiction are intense. Let yourself sit with the varied feelings and try not to judge yourself. 

Interrupting Patterns and Resisting Urges

A large part of addiction and recovery work involves interrupting unhealthy patterns of behaviour and resisting the urge to return to those patterns when times get tough. That is, of course, easier said than done.

Notice when the urges hit: 

Regardless of what behaviour you are trying to quell, look back at the pattern in prior observations. When do you most want to engage in this behaviour and why? 

Do you find yourself trying to disconnect from a difficult feeling? Name the feelings you are trying to avoid and when those feelings generally occur in your life. By narrowing it down in this way, you may be able to isolate the specific times of day when you are most likely to cave to an urge or craving. 

Change your patterns: 

Now that you have named the feelings or situations you are trying to escape from by engaging in an addiction, change the circumstances within your power to change. 

If it is stress-related addictive behaviour, can you alter your daily routine to find different ways to cope? Maybe instead of sitting down for a drink in the afternoon, you can go to the gym or attend a meditation group. 

If you are able to, change your entire setting and don’t go immediately into the location you most frequently engaged in the addiction. Our bodies have muscle memory. When you have engaged in a certain behaviour in a certain place for a long time, it is going to be twice as difficult to disengage from that behaviour simply because you are accustomed to it. Do something entirely different that doesn’t already have an expected or anticipated addiction tied to it. 

Learn to “urge surf”: 

Any addiction has a compelling component that keeps you coming back for more. Think about building tolerance to those urges so that you remain in control of your behaviour, rather than being at the whim of your mental and physical demands. 

Urge surfing is a common term in the field of recovery for learning how to sit with and tolerate the urges to feed an addiction without giving in. Imagine you are riding on a wave (an urge), and all you have to do is stay on your board. 

You know you will be safe as long as you stay on the board and let the wave pass beneath you. Know that the wave will pass, and you will soon be over the worst of it. 

Urge surfing helps create an emotional buffer between you and the addiction so that you can begin to trust yourself over time when an urge hits. 

Remember to reach out to supportive family and friends as you go through this journey. Involve a therapist or professional addiction counsellor to help you process the thoughts and feelings that emerge.

[This blog post originally appeared on Teyhou’s website ~ some content may have been modified for the UK context.]

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