We are all drug addicts
Your brain gives you a drug called dopamine every time you do something it recognises. Think of it like a puppy. You keep special treats in your pocket while you are training the puppy. When the puppy sees you put your hand in the pocket it wags its tail and gets all excited. It doesn’t have to get the treat to get excited. It knows what is in the pocket. Then, when it’s old enough, you stop giving it a treat when it does something right. You put your hand in your pocket to fetch your keys or something and the dog still gets excited and wags its tail. Because it knows what used to be in that pocket. But this time there is no treat. Eventually it stops wagging its tail when you put your hand in the pocket but it takes a while.
Your brain gives you dopamine when you do something it recognises. It doesn’t matter whether that thing is good or bad for you. All that matters is that your brain spots something it thinks is good and in anticipation of what is about to happen it releases an “excited” drug called dopamine.
We are all addicted to dopamine. This is why we do the same thing again and again even though it is often not good for us in the long run. It’s not your fault… it’s the drugs.
There is a trigger, a Thing, that will have trained the brain to release the dopamine in the first place. Like the puppy had to learn there was a treat in the pocket, you learnt that a particular substance did something for you at some point. It doesn’t matter whether it is alcohol, drugs, smoking, gambling or even food - you turned to this substance because it did something for you. It served a purpose.
Maybe it helped to dampen down horrible thoughts, creating a sort of numbness; an escape. Maybe it replaced feelings of insecurity or inadequacy with feelings of confidence and ‘not caring’. Like the puppy learned to get excited at the prospect of a treat, your brain learned to get excited at the prospect of what the substance would do for you. It learned to release dopamine at the thought of that substance.
Then one day, long after the original purpose the substance served has passed, you find that you still can’t give up. Your brain plays all sorts of tricks on you to justify it of course.
“I need to smoke to feel calm”.
“Food is all I have for comfort”.
“I need a drink to feel confident”.
The real addiction is actually the dopamine. It is the dopamine that keeps you attached to your addiction. It is the lack of dopamine that makes giving up an addiction so tricky. The real cold turkey you go through when you try and change an addiction is the depravation of dopamine. When you are doing stuff that is no longer familiar to your brain you stop getting your drugs. And that is a very uncomfortable feeling.
In time, the dopamine will return for the new habits. Along with the other, more powerful drugs like endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin. But in the middle is the uncomfortable bit. And if the trigger for the addiction is still there (the reason you started in the first place) then it is often not enough just to change the habit. First we need to clear the trigger, and then we can clear the habit.
In this way you can permanently move on from whatever substance used to have a hold on you. You don’t have to say “I will always be a smoker even though I don’t smoke”. You don’t have to say “I will always be a drinker even though I don’t drink”. You don’t have to be on and off diets for the rest of your life. You can be truly free.
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