Addictions and what to do about them
What is addiction?
The factors that increase the risk of having n addiction are:
- high stress level
- social environment — say, everybody around you smokes. That increases your chances of becoming a smoker too.
- psychology — some people have more willpower or a more susceptible to external influence
- genetics — there is actually an addiction gene that increases your chances of you developing an addiction
Addictions can be chemical, when you are addicted to a specific substance like alcohol; or behavioral, when we require a certain action to satisfy the need, like gambling.
If you lead a healthy lifestyle, are not too stressed and your hormonal and neurotransmitter balance are in order, you are not likely to develop an addiction. But when we are stressed and cannot cope with it, it is very likely that we will be looking for ways to make ourselves feel better and escape reality. That is how addiction starts.
Think of our brain as a roadmap. Every road is a neural connection which activates when we think about, feel or do something. Every action forms a neural connection and the more we repeat it, the stronger it gets. That is how a habit is formed, and the brain’s ability to form these new connections is called neuroplasticity.
In the course of evolution this ability has helped us a lot. We could react events automatically, without thinking and save energy. For example, when we had to run away from a wild animal. But neuroplasticity also makes it extremely difficult to give up bad habits. If you’ve been smoking for 10 years, your neural connection is not just a path, but a highway that is easily activated after you drink coffee, have sex, if you are nervous and in other situations that might trigger a desire to smoke.
So to form new habits and get rid of addictions we need to create new neural connections. And the stronger your old connections are, the harder it is to do.
Do I have an addiction?
- You develop tolerance and require higher doses to satisfy the need with time. For example, you needed two glasses of wine before and now you drink a bottle to have the same effect
- You experience withdrawal — you start having obsessive thoughts and cravings. For example, when your mood improves when you think about going to a bar after work.
- You cannot control it — it gets harder and harder to abstain from the bad habit. For example, you drank just on weekends before but now it is not enough.
- It takes up more and more of your time — you start making excuses and cancel other plans. For example, you go to a bar with friends instead of spending time with your family
- You continue doing it even if you have problems. You know things are bad but cannot stop. For example, you doctor said you shouldn’t drink but you still do it.
If you have at least 2 of these symptoms, you are likely to have an addiction.
Unlike hard drugs, nicotine does not affect your behavior, brain does not make you dangerous to the public. That is why many consider smoking more of a bad habit, rather than an addiction. Nicotine itself is actually pretty harmless. What really causes harm is the tobacco smoke. It contains up to 4, 000 harmful particles which are extremely toxic.
In short, we become addicted to nicotine and poison ourselves with the smoke. As a result, smoking decreases life expectancy by 13 years on average and leads to cancer, heard and lung disease.
So how do you quit? Going cold turkey has proven to be more effective that reducing the number of cigarettes gradually. In one study of 700 people one group went cold turkey while the other smoked less and less every day. In 6 months, 15% still did not smoke in the first group, while in the other the number went as high as 22%.
How much time does it take for the nicotine to leave your body? At least 3 days and up to a couple of weeks, depending on your age, how much you usually smoke and other factors. The first few days are usually the hardest as you have physical withdrawal symptoms, like fatigue, headache, increased appetite. After that it there are just psychological symptoms to work with. For example, you crave a cigarette when you are nervous or when you are drinking etc. That is why when you are trying to quit it is important to avoid stressors. When we are stressed, it is much harder for us to control ourselves.
Sport has also proven effective when trying to quit smoking. A Taiwanese study showed that those who exercise while trying to quit are 55% more successful. Cardio exercises work the best as they make your lungs work hard.
Alcohol addiction is also popular because alcohol is usually easily accessible and the consumption is legal. However, alcohol addiction leads to more than 200 diseases from brain damage to cardiovascular problems.
Alcohol changes chemical composition in our brain. For example, it disrupts the dopamine response and neuromediator balance. That is why when we drink we feel more relaxed while in reality it leads to hyperactivity, anxiety, cognitive impairment and depression.
Moreover, alcohol affects your liver, stomach, heart and many other organs. Excessive alcohol consumption is responsible for at least 6% of all deaths, with people from 20 to 40 being primary victims.
What else do you need to know if you like drinking?
- Alcohol does not help you fall asleep, it only lowers your sleep quality
- Alcohol does not help against common cold and does not help you get warm
- Alcohol is very high in calories by itself. What is more, it increases appetite and makes us overeat.
- Alcohol will not help you lower stress. It does cause more endorphins to be produced but also causes brain damage
- Your liver can only process 150 ml of wine, 350 ml of beer or 45 ml of vodka in one hour. If you drink more, it becomes extremely toxic and destroys your brain cells.
So what can you do to quit alcohol addiction? With alcohol, it is motivation that plays the main part. You need to want to give up drinking and have the right reasons. While therapy and medication also work, you should start only after you talk to a doctor.
If you wake up and go to bed thinking about work, check your email even on weekends and don’t remember the last time you went on holiday, you probably belong to 30% of workaholics in the world. The term workaholic was invented in 1971 by Wayne Oates, a scientist who found similarities between workaholics and alcoholics. Recent studies of 400, 000 people have also confirmed this connection.
The main thing you need to understand that working hard and having an addiction are not the same thing. Workaholism is an addiction, where it is the self process rather than the quality or efficiency matter.
How else is workaholism different?
- Workaholics do not care what they are doing as log as it is work-related
- Workaholics never relax and are always looking for something to do which affects their decision-making, productivity and focus
- Workaholics are trying to escape something, whether it is boredom of the fear to look lazy or lack of confidence
What can we do about it? Work!
First of all, start tracking your productivity to see how much time you spend working and procrastinating. If you are a workaholic, you probably won’t be happy about the results as workaholics tend to procrastinate a lot. You can use Rescue time, a productivity tracker, to see which websites and apps you use most and how much time you spend productively.
Secondly, do not try to work less, work more efficiently instead. Pick the main task for the day and make sure it is important and brings you closer to your goal. Try to pick tasks that are either urgent or important to stay on track.
Workaholics often underestimate the power of proper planning, but once you start, you’ll see how it will affect your productivity.
Can’t imagine your life without a smartphone? Check Instagram or Facebook every 10 minutes? You are likely to have nomophobia — no-mobile-phone phobia.
Why is digital addiction dangerous?
- It affects your relationship. You probably won’t like it if your friends or partner keep staring at their phone while you are having dinner? Studies also confirm that spending too much time on social media impact our empathy skills, and make us less responsive to feelings and emotions of others.
- It affects our ability to focus. If you are used to scrolling through Facebook, it gets harder and harder to read books and longer articles, and we have to re-read the same information again and again to understand the meaning. We get so used to short texts and vivid images that we don’t get any pleasure from the actual reading anymore. The endless posts and messages also overload our brain, and we cannot comprehend anything more serious.
- You lose touch with reality. You stop noticing the nature, people, and everything else that goes on around you. Your smartphone is everything that matters and anything that distracts us from is just makes us angry and annoyed.
- We start comparinf ourseves with others and it lowers our self-esteem and happiness level.
So what can we do? While many of us track their activity, nutrition and sleep, few track their screen time. However, it is where you should start.
— try setting up a timer. Work in 20-30 minutes intervals without using your smartphone. You can try Pomodoro timer or Stay Focused app. Make it a rule: if the timer is running — no smartphone. That way you’ll be able to stay productive and reduce your screen time.
— install No Phone Timer or Flipd — these apps can block your phone for a set amount of time and will help you concentrate when you need to.
— if a regular timer is too boring, try the Forest app. You can set a timer and grow tress there. While it is running, the tree is growing, but if you quit the app, it dies.
As soon as you master these tricks, start doing digital detox. Try an hour or two first and work your way up to a whole day without gadgets. Also, turn off all the notifications at night and do not use the smartphone in bed — the blue light from the screen affects our sleep and sounds or vibrations can wake you up.
The main thing to remember is that you should not try to give up your smartphone or social networks completely. You just need to make sure you control yourself and are using them reasonably.
Orthorexia — preoccupation with eating healthy
You’ve probably heard of such eating disorders as bulimia and anorexia? These are clearly the extreme cases, but what about people who just pay too much attention to what and how they are eating?
People who are orthorexic watch what they are eating, are concerned about the ingredients, cooking methods and other small things.
According to various sources, orthorexia affects up to 7% of the population. Interestingly, a study among 136 yoga practitioners showed that 86% of them were orthorexic, the percentage being higher among vegetarians, although no connection between yoga or diet and orthorexia has been found so far.
Orthorexic people become so obsessed with their diet that it affects their relationship, happiness and life quality in general. They often become unsociable which only feeds the addition. Most of the times, however, people cannot admit that they have a problem and think that they are just watching what they eat. Research also shows that they often work out obsessively. Such lifestyle leads to anxiety, depression, malnutrition and other health problems.
And although orthorexia is not considered a mental disease yet, you still need to find ways to control it.
— Make sure you eat enough calories. Orthorexia often makes people cut down on calories which is harmful for your health.
— At least once a week pick a day when you can eat whatever you want. You’ll see that nothing bad is happening and will be able to relax more
— If you realize that all you think about is food and your work, personal life and relationship suffer, do not hesitate to ask for help until it becomes more serious.
How to kick bad habits?
You need to find out why you became addicted in the first place, what situations trigger you and substitute bad habits for healthy ones.
Follow these steps:
- Dig deep to find out what caused your addiction, It won’t be easy but maybe you’ll find out that it helps you fight stress or socialize.
- When you’ve figured out what the reason is, try to find something that will cause the same effect. For example, if you drink to fight stress, next time you feel stressed, get a massage, meditate or go for a walk. If you don’t feel the urge to drink after, you are on the right track.
- Keep an eye on your stress and energy levels. When we are tired or nervous, it is harder for us to control ourselves, and we are more likely to relapse.
- Break the vicious circle. All habits have a trigger — a situation that causes us to want to drink, gamble or eat sweets, If you are a smoker, it might be a break at work, a desire to talk to your friend or just a hard day. You can turn off the trigger by doing something else instead. For example, instead of smoking chew gum, or drink green tea. If you crave sweets, do some stretching, listen to music or watch a funny video. Break the connection and and it will get easier and easier to control yourself once new neural connections are formed.
- Make it as difficult as possible to satisfy the need. For example, you can say smoking is allowed but only if you go outside. You can have a chocolate but only after you’ve done 20 squats. Remember that our brain is lazy and is trying to save energy all the time. The more obstacles there are, the more likely you are to just give up and not indulge yourself.
- Make sure you have a solid support system. Involve other people in the process and tell your friends about your plans. The way you’ll feel more supported but also you’ll feel more responsible and motivated.
As soon as you break the cycle and adopt new, healthier habits, you’ll see improvements immediately. Good luck!