Breaking addictive behaviours

Behaviours can be addictive

When we think of addictions, we often think of ‘substances’ like drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. However, evidence shows that behaviours can be addictive – some common examples include gambling, pornography, snacking and even social media. Too often it is the behaviour that keeps people stuck, and the ‘substance’ and the behaviour (its consumption) become intimately linked.

When you think about addiction, think about the 4 C’s:

  • compelling,
  • consequential,
  • continued,
  • (out of) control

That is, any behaviour that a person believes ‘compels’ them to act (often overtaking their thoughts when they are not engaged in it), has negative consequences (on them, their loved ones, their finances, their relationships), continues even in the face of desires to cease and is out of control (in particular, is poorly regulated in terms of time, volume, impact or engagement) – fits the description of being addictive.

What behaviours do you have that might fit this definition?

What makes a behaviour addictive is the neurological impact that it has. Consider the natural history of addictive behaviours from a neurobiological point of view:

A person engages in a behaviour for reasonable reasons – often to gain pleasure, avoid pain, or create a distraction. These are all reasonable reasons to do any behaviour as a one-off.

The first positive outcome leads to a big dopamine surge in the brain – this is the key reward and feel good chemical.

The brain then adapts to ongoing dopamine responses by down regulating on both sides of the synapse – less receptors and less dopamine are created to ongoing ‘hits’. They need more and more ‘hits’ to have the same effect. The behaviour is not as rewarding as it was, so they need more or more often to create a satisfying response.

The peak end rule and primacy bias means that we remember the first ‘hit’ – the biggest ‘hit’ – and keep chasing this (it is never repeated with the same behaviour). This creates the urge to engage in the behaviour to get the hit of dopamine, and often a disappointment that invoking the behaviour doesn’t live up to what is remembered.

The down-regulation process now makes the lack of doing this behaviour now ‘punishing’ – the amount of dopamine produced is below baseline unless the activity is carried out. If you now stop the behaviour, it becomes ‘punishing’ as you are not getting the dopamine hits you are used to.

As we over-focus on what the memory of the first ‘hit’ and self reinforce thoughts and feelings about doing the behaviour, it promotes the behaviour –  even where we know it has other costs in our lives. This all drives the 4 C’s that describe addiction.

In many instances, the behaviour is used against us by marketeers, influencers and corporations. Consider the pay-out roster for poker machines. Or the many different online gambling services and the processes they use to keep users ‘engaged’. Or the ‘likes’ of social media, the endless lake of posts on Facebook or LinkedIn. The way snacks are advertised and discounted in store. Our unwanted behaviour may be their path to profit or market share.

When we are dealing with addictive behaviours, there are many factors to consider in changing the behaviour and improving the outcome. In creating an intervention, it has to be specific to the person and in particular, relative to their capacity to have self control. In any process, there also needs to be consideration of the ‘cognitive equation’ and to address both ‘sides’ of the equation to generate real and lasting change.

The cognitive equation of addiction:

Any time we decide to act or to not act in the face of a ‘temptation’, we are evaluating our situation using a specific cognitive equation. This equation compares long term goals on one side, versus short term benefits on the other. The issue is that we automatically apply a cognitive ‘discount’ to rewards that are more distant, and react more strongly to immediate impulse drivers. This acts to reinforce addictive behaviour as the easy, better, or more rewarding choice for the individual.

Consider this in terms of the way the brain responds – it craves dopamine surges, and it has to either delay a dopamine surge available now (a punishment) in favour of a receiving a poorly defined response way off in the future. Or we can take the immediate reward, and worry about the small, distant pay-off later. We will therefore always be at risk of succumbing to the imbalance provided by impulse over longer term plans.

Intervening in addictive behaviour processes:

Understanding the nature of addictive behaviours and what drives them allows us to design interventions that have the best chance of working. These interventions have to target both sides of the cognitive equation (short term impulse response as well as long term planning frames).

Targeting planning:

To assist in balancing the equation, the aim is the strengthen the value of long term plans and goals. Setting goals that are highly vivid, valuable, exciting and not too far distant helps overcome the natural tendency to discount. Taking the time and effort to understand the pros and cons of the behaviour (and its abstinence) and being literate about your circumstance is a valuable first step in any intervention.

Targeting the impulse:

Intervening in the immediate response to a temptation with the aim of reducing the value of the perceived reward, increasing the perceived cost and making the access more difficult are all valuable methods to impact the equation. There are a number of intervention processes that are used from AA to clinical practice that all seek to work on one or more of these aspects.  For example, there are ways to change access, add to the difficulty of acting, having penalties, using visualisations and creating alternates that all can work under different situations.

Understanding where your equation needs to be ‘adjusted’ is therefore a valuable approach in intervening in addictive behaviours. Creating an integrated approach targeting both sides of the equation and all of the active pillars in each as relevant to the individual is the best path forward. There really is no one-fix-for-all approach, but rather personalisation and integration of what is right and valuable to assist that individual be able to ‘do the sums’ in the face of temptation or ‘need’ and choose a more valuable response.

Creating such approaches in clinical settings empowered with hypnosis can greatly assist people to move beyond their responses and addictive patterns of behaviour. If you want to find out how this could work for you, contact me now.