Did you know that... many "bad habits" are actually addictions?

Bridge over blue water

Did you know that… It takes changing at least 4 parts of our brain to make or break a habit or addiction? In other words, there’s good reason it’s so darn hard to break a bad habit.

Habits and addictions often shape the quality of our life and experience we have living it. Most people associate addictions with drugs like alcohol, cocaine, opioids, nicotine etc. I disagree with this assertion. Other than the drugs that the brain itself produces when it becomes addicted (yes, our brain becomes addicted, not us), there are many addictions where drugs play no role in the addictive behavior. Gambling, fast foods, pornography… even being a couch potato. Or getting emotionally and physically upset repeatedly whenever the person we say we love keeps trying to run our lives… or being prone to episodes of road rage when cut off on the freeway.

I personally define an addiction as “any recurring behavior or response we don’t or can’t stop that does physical or emotional harm to ourselves, others, or both.”

If it’s hard to see how our relationship with food, or how we respond to our loved ones, could be classified as addictive, then why is nearly 40% of our population obese? And why is it that 50% of primary relationships fail? For those afflicted, why don’t they just eat less or stop sabotaging the love that brought them together in the first place? It’s not because they are weak people or bad people. It’s just that our incredibly complex and addictive brains make it difficult for us to stop the behavior.

The distinction between a habit and addiction–other than the severity of the eventual pain associated with the consequence of the behavior–is that in an addiction, certain parts of our brain are willing to sacrifice nearly everything that “we say and know” is important to us in order to continue the behavior. Our health, our self-esteem, our personal integrity, our well-being, our relationships, job, time with the family, whether or not we go to the beach in summer, how we look, money and in some cases life itself.

Now, I want to be clear that I did not say that those of us who have experienced addiction have the desire or want to make that sacrifice–I said the addicted brain is willing to make that sacrifice. It’s willing because it has prioritized the continuation of the behavior substantially above whether we live a quality life or not. Once addicted, its job is to make sure we comply with its prioritization, and it has a variety of tools in its belt it uses to cause us to fail when we do try to change.

That being said, I’m also NOT saying we are NOT responsible for the addictive behavior itself or the breaking of it, because we are. We started it and we are the only ones who have the capacity to eliminate it. By the way, responsibility is not blame or shame. Blame or shame are ways of giving up responsibility. Change is not easy. It requires commitment, surrendering our points of view, vision, responsibility and the retraining of the brain.

Some people have been successful in changing their addictive habits, and for most it was not easy. It involved lots of failures before they either discovered the secret sauce by trial and error or got lucky. But either way they did it. They used the parts of the left and right frontal cortex—the areas they could access and had reasonable control over—to reprogram, collaborate with, and outwit the parts of their brain that perpetuated the lifestyle that was holding them hostage. Props for their persistence. And props to you if you made help available.

Next time I will talk more about the role of the brain in behavior change and outline the five broad steps required for it. I will also discuss in some detail the first step: “thinking about change”… and all that can go wrong with that. Have a great week.

Lou Ryan – Founder of SelfHelpWorks 

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