Keeping the control all the times is not easy. Daily stress, unexpected changes in life or even simple apathy can push us to develop addictive behaviors that represent a risk for our well-being. At first these behaviors seem innocuous and even beneficial because they provide some relief from emotional stress. However, over time they can become maladaptive coping strategies that generate a true behavioral addiction.
What are behavioral addictions?
When we think of addictions, we normally associate them with the consumption of alcohol, drugs or tobacco, but there are other types of addictions that can also cause a lot of damage. In this case, instead of developing a dependency on a substance, we become dependent on a certain behavior, whether it be playing video games, surfing the Internet, compulsive shopping or gambling, eating without control, using the phone excessively, or even experimenting an uncontrollable desire to have sex.
All these addictions have one thing in common: we lose control of an action, which we perform compulsively and repetitively. We experience an urgent need to repeat that behavior, despite the obvious psychological or physical damage it causes us. At that point we are no longer able to decide how to act and we feel defenseless before ourselves, as if we had become our own worst enemy.
It is not a trivial problem. It is estimated that up to 5.8% of the world’s population is addicted to gambling and 20% suffers from food addiction. However, recognizing that we have a problem is the first step to solving it.
Understanding the origin, essential to prevent addictive behaviors
Understanding how behavioral addictions originate is key to preventing and avoiding them. Addictive behaviors usually start at times when we feel most vulnerable and defenseless, such as when we are going through a particularly adverse situation that causes us great suffering or discomfort. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, the end of a relationship or even the diagnosis of an illness, are usually delicate stages in which we can resort to certain behaviors to escape from a reality that is too harsh.
These behaviors stimulate the production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin, which generate pleasant sensations and erase unpleasant emotions, at least temporarily. This produces a positive association in our brain, activating the reward circuit, so that when we feel bad again, we use those behaviors as an outlet to release emotional tension.
Its short-term positive effects make us think that these behaviors are a good strategy that we can use in difficult times to feel better. Thus we create conditioned learning, so that when we feel bad, the desire to repeat the behaviors that bring us a certain degree of relief is automatically activated.
However, those behaviors that seem like a “safe” refuge to avoid suffering, in reality only allow us to momentarily evade discomfort while the problem that causes it remains latent. For example, we can take refuge in social networks when our environment is disappointing or buy excessively to fill an inner void. That will allow us to momentarily escape from reality, but it will not change it.
Addictive behaviors are really an avoidance strategy. When we escape from reality, the problems continue to grow, so we add more reasons to feel those unpleasant emotions. Thus, the internal tension grows and we lose control more and more, plunging ourselves into a vicious circle that feeds behavioral addiction.
In the long term, addictive behaviors cause discomfort and interfere with our daily lives because to get the same relief we need to increase their frequency. Thus they end up occupying more and more time, displacing other important areas, such as work, studies, family or even self-care, while restricting our sphere of interests.
3 keys to overcome a behavioral addiction
1. Identify the triggers of addictive behaviors
To avoid addictive behaviors, it is essential to identify their triggers; that is, the situations or stimuli that trigger unwanted behaviors. Each person has different triggers, so it is important to do an introspection exercise: it could be physical pain or psychological suffering, or even boredom or frustration.
It is also convenient to identify the specific situations that activate those addictive behaviors, such as arguments with a partner, work tension or even the time of day in which they occur, such as in the afternoon or at night, when we tend to feel lonelier and worries haunt us.
We must think about how we feel moments before engaging in the addictive behavior. What thoughts were running through our mind? What were we worried about? What exactly were we trying to avoid? That inner exploration can be difficult, but it is essential.
Recognizing our triggers will give us some leeway to anticipate addictive behaviors. So we can stop the connection that has been created in the brain before it is irremediably activated, to avoid running for refuge in social networks, shopping or gambling. Of course, interrupting the triggers will not eliminate the behavioral addiction overnight, but it will at least help us break the harmful pattern.
2. Establish clear guidelines and follow them to the letter
When we have detected the situations that act as triggers for addictive behaviors, it is important to establish a clear action plan. One of the main problems with behavioral addictions is that they push us to act impulsively. Once the reward mechanism at the brain level is activated, it does not leave us much room to think and make the best decision. That is why it is essential to have a plan B.
Neuroscientists from the Universities of Texas, Yale and UCLA found that in many cases we succumb to temptations not because our desire has intensified, but because our self-control system fails, tipping the scales dangerously. Having to make hundreds of small decisions on a daily basis drains our willpower, which is a finite resource.
For that reason, having clear guidelines for behavior at times when we feel most vulnerable will help us stay on track. For example, a shopaholic may decide in advance that they will only spend X amount of Money when shopping, and to make it easier to comply with that rule, instead of carrying a credit card, they could carry only a prepaid card with that amount.
The key is to set clear behavioral rules so you don’t have to make a decision right when you find yourself in a triggering situation and do everything you can to clear the path for following them. Step by step, with small achievements at a time, we can break the pattern that behavioral addictions feed on.
3. Find other sources of healthy gratification
Let’s not kid ourselves: addictive behaviors generate pleasure (even momentarily) and eliminating them makes us feel terrible (due to abstinence). The dopamine rush is nice, but there are healthier ways to feel good. In the same way that we build the brain connections of addiction, we can also weaken them to prevent them from controlling us and begin to create new, healthier neural pathways.
Although it may seem strange, all behaviors, even the most dysfunctional ones, are trying to convey a message to us. If we want to eliminate a behavioral addiction, we need to find the underlying unmet emotional need and look for more constructive ways to satisfy it. We should ask ourselves: how else can we find the feeling of relief/relaxation/peace/joy? We just have to find other healthy behaviors that offer us similar satisfaction.
It is important to understand that if we simply stop an addictive behavior, we are leaving a vacuum, making it more likely that we will relapse in the future. That is why we must review our life habits and create new rewarding and relaxing routines.
In this sense, a study carried out at the Hospital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris discovered that mental fatigue makes us more impulsive and prone to choosing immediate rewards. That means that in addition to working to break the loop of addictive behaviors, it is also important to learn how to relax and release tension.
Last but not least, remember that sometimes goodwill is not enough to get rid of addictive behaviors. Sometimes it is necessary to seek specialized help. All addictions, however impossible it may seem, can be treated and improved, allowing us to return to a normal life and achieving our personal goals. Even though we may have relapses in this process, there is always an opportunity to learn from them and stop doing them.
It is important not to fall into a pessimistic and frustrated attitude that makes us think that ‘this has no solution’. This is a state that is the result of the addiction itself, which at the same time makes treatment very difficult. When this happens, it is worth letting ourselves be guided by a therapist that helps us to see clearly the expectations and possibilities that we have to handle it.
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