If you recall from Stopping Addictions pt 1, which reviewed current research on addictions, your brain has used its thousands of years of evolution to rewire itself to all of those “rewarding” things that you have been feeding it. Its’ capacity to learn has developed it in a way that is really unhelpful to you leaving you with faulty wiring and a “Brian” instead of a brain. Your brain has developed strong neural connections between brain cells based upon your feelings, thinking and behaviour. It is these patterns that are the basis of your addiction and why it is hard to stop.
One picture that may help is to imagine a sheep track in the hills. Sheep follow the same paths over and over again and, if you look, you can see these deep grooves where the sheep have been walking. It is also true that every now and again a solitary sheep runs off in a different direction but, by and large, they do follow the same paths. Thoughts are like sheep in that they often follow familiar paths in your mind because those paths have been well used.
To get new habits you have to rewire your brain. Because of the depth and strength of the connections of the brain you have unconsciously learnt to respond to triggers – which may be either internal feelings (like sadness or frustration etc.) or things we see/hear/feel. These triggers are linked to your addictive behaviour. You need to help you brain to make new connections.
Reboot Your Brain?
Perhaps the ideal is to go “cold turkey” and to reboot your brain and teach it a new programme. Gambling addiction or pornography addiction seem to respond to “turning the tap off”, stopping and rebooting. Unfortunately, with substance misuse because of physical withdrawal you may well need to taper your addictive behaviour for medical reasons or might need medical supervision in rehab.
Three of the Best
This brings us to some techniques which you can use to help you to rewire.
1. Surf It
The good news is that we cannot maintain the intensity of our feeling for all that long. The first tactic is to surf the feeling. Notice the feeling and identify it and look at it in your mind. What is the specific feeling? Then surf it towards the shore. It will break on the beach if you just hang in there. You cannot maintain an intense feeling for a long period. Try it.
To give you a clear idea of this in practice, if it was smoking go take a shower. Your job is to work out beforehand what the alternative activities are (write a list!) so that you can immediately put the alternative activity in place.
3. Distract Yourself
As above but any activity that you enjoy that takes your mind away from the thoughts of addiction. In order to work effectively, this needs to be something you really enjoy, ideally something which occupies your thoughts/makes you concentrate. You also need to do it immediately. When you have found an activity that works stick to it repetitively.
Distraction tends to be harder than doing something incompatible. Writing a journal, making a favourite snack, playing chess, having a deep conversation are examples. Progressive Muscular Relaxation or meditation are also great but require some practice.
When you first start these alternative activities it will require lots and lots of will power. As you practice turning your attention to these alternatives they will get easier and easier as you begin to “rewire your brain” and your addiction becomes less powerful. The more you do this, the stronger the connections get and the weaker your automatic responses will become. You will, however, still get your addictive cravings/ images or other things for a long time, they do however, change and become easier to manage.
Ken McLeish is Principal Therapist at Reflexions Counselling and Therapy in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. Reflexions provides counselling and therapy for a range of issues including addictions. He can be contacted through the website: https://counselling-newcastle.co.uk .
Information contained in this blog is not a substitute for face-to-face therapy. It can only every be one view of a situation and may not be applicable to your situation. You are advised to seek specialist support for treatment for addictions. The work here is a personal view which may change over time and should not be taken as representative of Reflexions Counselling and Psychotherapy.