I have a confession to make. I am an addict. But, I got some bad news for you. You’re probably one as well.
Whenever I heard the words “addiction” or “addict”, the first thing that popped into my head was an image of a bum living on the street, while being high on drugs. That was the impression that was imprinted in my childhood, and it’s the reason why for the longest time, I didn’t consider myself to be an addict at all.
You don’t have to add a ton of new behaviors to get your life in order, just get rid of the ones holding you down. That’s how you become better than yesterday. By shedding away one addiction at a time.
If that’s your perception of addiction, then you might think this topic doesn’t concern you. But addiction can be found in other everyday behaviors that nobody would bat an eye for if you were to indulge in them. Such as: shopping, browsing the internet, eating fast food, working, scrolling on your phone, drinking coffee, gambling, playing Runescape ahem you get the point. It’s not exclusive to alcoholics and drug users.
So what I’m going to talk about today is relevant to everyone, because I believe most of us are addicted to something, even if we might not know or want to admit it. At the very least, we all have certain behaviors that we would like to stop or reduce. And to improve your life, you don’t have to necessarily add a ton of new habits, but rather, eliminate the ones that are holding you down.
Of course, most of the behaviors I mentioned are acceptable when done in moderation. Someone who gets drunk every once in a while is not necessarily an addict. He’s merely making a bad choice. What addiction really is, is continued and compulsive overconsumption, that you continue to indulge in, despite the negative consequences you experience yourself, or you’re inflicting onto others.
So if you keep repeating a behavior and can’t reduce or stop it, you are an addict. But the problem is that the most common thing an addict tells himself, is that he’s not really addicted, that he can stop at any time, and that he just doesn’t want or doesn’t see a reason to stop. Rather, he finds ways to justify his behavior.
So a good question to ask yourself is this: can you stop that behavior completely for a few weeks? Can you do without your phone, sugar, coffee or your computer for that period of time? If we’re completely honest, for a lot of us, the answer is no. And we might want to examine more closely as to why that is.
Because the easiest way to take control over your behavior, is to understand why you’re doing it in the first place. We all have certain desires. And our addiction, while it may be problematic, is usually just a solution we have come up with to fulfill those desires. You see, if our behavior didn’t benefit us in some way, we wouldn’t be repeating it. In other words, we’re addicted to our drug of choice, because it fulfills a certain purpose.
For some people, it’s pleasure seeking. Obviously we all want to feel good. Maybe you want to feel the excitement of discovering something new, so you go on the internet and browse social media. Or perhaps you want to have some fun, so you look to entertain yourself by sports betting or playing video games.
However, our behavior isn’t only driven by our desires, but also by the problems and difficulties of life. So another reason behind our behavior is pain avoidance. And I believe that this is the more common behavioral driver for most people. Obviously nobody wants to feel unpleasant. We want to escape that pain. So when you’re stressed or overwhelmed, you binge on food or cigarettes to replace the bad feelings with good sensations.
Perhaps you feel lonely or bored, and you go shopping or gambling to take your mind off of those depressing thoughts. Maybe you feel helpless or empty, and you binge watch Netflix series all day in order to distract yourself. I could go on and on… But, whether it’s pleasure seeking, or pain avoidance, you’ve probably noticed in your own life, that you tend to rely on highly dopaminergic behaviors or substances as your solution. Meaning, when you indulge in those activities, your brain releases a lot of dopamine. And as you may already know, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is linked to motivation, craving and drive. Whenever it gets released, your mood tends to elevate and you feel great.
But the more dopamine an activity releases, and the faster it gets released, the more addictive it is. So you have to be really careful here. While this strategy of indulging in highly dopaminergic activities might be effective for elevating your mood in the short term, it can make your life worse in the long term. In her book, “The dopamine nation”, Anna Lembke, who’s an addiction expert and professor at Stanford university, describes a very important process. She explains how pain and pleasure are actually processed in the same region of the brain, but more importantly, that they work like a balance. Which is something that I didn’t know until recently, but is an absolutely crucial aspect to the way that we function in everyday life.
Imagine that your brain contains a scale. When there’s nothing on it, it’s perfectly flat and balanced. However, when you indulge in a pleasurable, high dopamine activity, the balance tips. The more exciting the behavior, the more and faster it tips, the more pleasure you feel. But here’s the thing about balance. It wants to remain level, or flat. So every time it gets tipped towards pleasure, eventually a self-regulating mechanism that is not under your control kicks in, in order to bring it back to the level position it was in.
However, it doesn’t just stop at balance. Instead the mechanism overcompensates and tips the scale all the way to the pain side, for you to spend an equal time there, as you did on the pleasure side. When this happens, you don’t experience literal physical pain, but rather you might feel a sense of unease, like there’s something missing. And what you feel are cravings for the thing that brought you that initial pleasure. You want to recreate that moment of enjoyment, or at the very least, try to not let it fade away.
So, what do you do? You push on the pleasure side again. You keep on scrolling, playing, watching, drinking, eating, or whatever you were doing. But there’s a problem with that.
When you try to re-create that previous high, that spike of pleasure, there are two key factors working against you. Firstly, there’s something called diminishing marginal utility. You know how when you’re hungry, the first slice of pizza tastes amazing? It’s 10/10. The second and the third one are still pretty good, but the sixth one is kinda meh. This happens with almost everything. The more you indulge in something, the less pleasure you derive from it.
Secondly, over time you build tolerance. If you’re obsessively watching pornography, you will eventually require more extreme versions of it, otherwise it will stop being exciting. Or if you’re a gambling addict, you’ll feel the need to bet higher and higher amounts, because lower amounts simply won’t thrill you anymore. Your baseline will adjust, and you’ll require a more potent version. These two factors create a vicious cycle, where you keep pressing on the pleasure side more and more, while getting less and less pleasure from it.
And if you keep giving into your cravings, day after day, eventually you’re not doing it for pleasure anymore. You’re doing just to feel normal, and you might not even realize it. Take a look at this graph here. It’s another way to visualise the pain/pleasure balancing act that takes place. When you first indulge in instant gratification, you feel great due to a dopamine spike. But once the high wears off, it drops down and goes below the baseline. You feel a sense of unease and you crave more of your “drug”. So you indulge again, but by doing that, you’re not letting the balance reset properly.
Further indulgence then isn’t as gratifying as it was at first, due to diminishing marginal utility. But you don’t want to stop, rather, you want to recreate that high, because of the cravings. So you keep using over and over and over, but you get to a point where you’re no longer getting anything out of it, you’re just using your drug to feel normal, because you’ve developed tolerance and adapted. What used to make you feel good, is now required for you to not feel terrible. And if you stop now, you’ll have to face the withdrawal symptoms and feel irritated, distracted, anxious or empty. All because the self-regulating mechanism wants to collect the debt that you racked up from binging on highly dopaminergic activities.
And I believe a lot of us are stuck in this pattern. We’ve become slaves to our cravings, and we can’t really control our behavior, even if we think we can. So the big question is: how can we break this vicious cycle and take that control back? Unfortunately, it’s very unlikely that you’ll just wake up one day and suddenly stop your compulsive behavior out of the blue. However, there is a solution. It’s actually really simple, but your addicted brain won’t like it. That’s why afterwards, I’ll lay out a coherent plan to make the whole thing easier.
The solution is: To stop pursuing pleasure and abstain from your drug of choice for at least 1 month. That’s it. I told you you wouldn’t like it. It’s basically an extended dopamine fast or dopamine detox. And I know this might sound extreme to some of you, as it requires a good amount of discipline, but it works really well and actually produces tangible results. I’ve done it myself to take control over my own unwanted behaviors and it helped me eliminate most of the cravings for it. I’ll explain why it’s so effective later, because first I would like to share a step by step plan to achieve this 1 month of abstinence.
Everyone might have the willpower necessary to resist their cravings for a couple of days, but 1 whole month is a completely different beast. So here’s the plan: There are 4 components to it. First, identify your triggers. Second, optimize your environment. Third, find an alternative behavior. And fourth, try to do something difficult every day. Let’s go through them one by one.
Before and during your 1 month of abstinence, you should be analyzing your cravings. You need to find out what sets them off in order to better understand how to handle them. A few key questions that you could ask yourself are: How did I feel? What was I thinking about? Who was I with? Did I see something specific? What was I doing when the craving hit? What time was it? If you self-analyze carefully, you’ll find that there are common patterns. You might find out that every time you’re feeling bored or you’re thinking about work, you get a craving to watch videos on your phone.
Perhaps you’ll notice that whenever you’re hanging out with certain people or see a particular advertisement, you get an itch to drink or smoke. Or maybe every time it’s 5pm or whenever you’re laying on the couch, you get a craving to play video games. Whatever your triggers are, you need to be aware of them, otherwise you’ll be a slave to them forever. But once you know what they are, you can actually take control of your behavior, simply by changing your surroundings in a way that doesn’t trigger them. And that brings me to the second component, which is to optimize your environment.
If you’re constantly finding yourself in situations that make you want to use your drug of choice, that’s a problem. Addicts who get treatment at rehabilitation clinics, often start using their drug again, once they return back home, even if they were able to completely abstain at the clinic.
That’s because they tend to come back to the same environment they left behind and all the triggers are still there. Same people, same places, same temptations, all of which lead to the same old patterns of behavior.
That’s why you want to distance yourself from things that induce cravings as much as you can. Or at least optimize them to a degree you can control. But more importantly, what you also must do, is create a barrier between you and your drug of choice.
Even if you remove all the triggers, you’ll probably still get cravings from time to time. And if the drug is always readily available, whenever you get a craving, you’ll just binge on it. But if you have to jump through a lot of hoops to get to it, or even better, can’t access it at all, you’re less likely to indulge.
And personally, creating a barrier was a key factor for me. I knew I wouldn’t have the willpower to resist my desire to play video games and surf the Internet all the time. So what I did was, I downloaded an app called FocusMe, which allowed me to completely block my game and the websites I was wasting time on. And it worked wonders. No matter how much I wanted to play or browse the web, I simply couldn’t. It created instant discipline and I had to settle for doing some work instead. I’ve been using FocusMe for almost 2 years now, and I highly recommend them.
If you’re someone who struggles separating work from play, they’re your best bet. You get to decide which apps, programs or websites it blocks, for how long, on which days, etc. You can even block the access to your entire computer if that’s what you need. It’s fully customizable and overall it’s really simple to use.
Because I was so satisfied with them, I reached out to the FocusMe team, and they were kind enough to sponsor this video. They even made a special offer for the channel viewers so you can try it out for 1 month, risk free, if you use the link down below. Which is perfect for your 1 month of abstinence. So if you need some extra discipline, make sure to check them out. And you also get to support this channel while you’re at it.
Now, remember how I mentioned earlier that there is a purpose that your addiction fulfills? If you just flat out stop indulging, you will have certain needs that won’t be met, and you’ll be left with an empty void. That is why you need a suitable replacement to fall back on, one that fulfills that same or similar purpose.
So what is it that your addiction does for you? Does it ease your boredom? Satisfy your social needs? Does it help decrease stress? Whatever it is, you need to identify it, and make a list of activities that could satisfy that same need, at least partly. It’s also important that you don’t replace a highly dopaminergic and addictive behavior with another highly addictive one. You don’t want to quit social media, only to replace it with something like smoking. While this is common sense, it’s also what often happens.
I see so many people who treat one addiction, become a victim of another one. So make sure that the replacement is beneficial to you, or at the very least, it’s not destructive. And you should expect that the substitute behavior won’t be as exciting as your current one. However, you can consider it as a bridge to help you get to the other side of cravings.
Now, the activity that you’ll replace your addiction with should be moderately demanding. Which brings me to the fourth and last component. Do something difficult every day. You know the pain/pleasure balance that I mentioned one hundred times in this video? Well, it works the other way around as well. When you finish something difficult, once you’re done struggling, how do you feel afterwards? The answer is, you feel great. Just as pain is the price you pay for pleasure, so too is pleasure your reward for pain. After you finish studying, you feel accomplished. When you lift heavy and break a personal best, your confidence goes up. And after you’re done cleaning the dishes, you feel proud of yourself. That’s why you should strive to do something difficult every day.
Yes, I know it’s much harder to do these things, as opposed to indulging, because they’re not pleasurable in the moment. But by deliberately engaging in difficult activities, you end up with long lasting satisfaction. And this helps make abstaining easier. So those are the four components you should utilize to make it through the month.
But why does abstaining work anyway? Wouldn’t an addict desire his drug even more afterwards? There are two reasons why abstaining works so well. The first reason is neuroplasticity. Our brains are plastic. Not made out of plastic, but plastic as in, they can change and adapt, by forming new connections and breaking old ones.
So every time you do something, the synapses in your brain get strengthened and reinforced, as well as become more efficient. By giving in to your cravings, you’re literally making it more likely for yourself to repeat that behavior in the future. Every time you come home from work and eat a bag of chips in front of the TV, you’re further ingraining those actions. If you pull out your phone when you’re standing in line bored, you’re making it more likely for yourself to keep repeating that. But the inverse holds true as well. When you abstain, and stop a certain behavior, the connections weaken. Because you stop reinforcing them, the neural synapses break apart. And now you’re less likely to repeat that behavior in the future. When you look at it that way, it becomes clear how important it is what actions you take on a daily basis.
The second reason why abstaining works is because the pain/pleasure balance resets. When you wait long enough, your brain readapts to the absence of the drug and you return to your baseline. You’ll find that normal everyday activities that aren’t as dopaminergic become more pleasurable again. Cooking and eating a homemade meal. Watching the sun rise or set. Writing a script about addiction. Going for a hike in the woods. Meeting up with old friends. Things that you might’ve found boring or not as exciting before, suddenly give you more pleasure again after abstaining. And the cravings for highly dopaminergic activities weaken.
However, it should be noted that you’re going to feel worse before you feel better. The balance reset is going to be painful, as it will tip all the way down to the pain side. A debt to be paid for overindulging in pleasure. Also, if you’re someone who’s addicted to a physical substance, such as coffee, alcohol, or cigarettes, you should consult a doctor before you attempt to abstain. Because you’re not going to only face intense cravings alongside negative emotions, but probably physical withdrawals as well, such as headaches, diarrhea, and nausea. Just something to be careful about.
But, what comes next? How do you proceed after that 1 month is over? Many of us don’t want to give up our addiction completely. We just want to be able to control it and reduce it to a more reasonable level. Which is perfectly understandable. But for some people, when it comes to certain activities, moderation and self control are sadly impossible. With just a single exposure to their drug, they can go straight back to compulsive use, even after years or even decades of abstinence. That is why Alcoholics Anonymous, even if they haven’t drank alcohol for 25 years, they still start with: I’m an alcoholic. And from a neuroplasticity viewpoint, this is true. Whenever connections between neurons are formed, they tend to stay there. Abstaining only makes them weaker or dormant. And sometimes even a small, one-time use, can reignite compulsive usage and make them as strong as they were before abstaining.
Another way to visualize this process, is to imagine a snowy hill with fresh snow on it. You’re someone who likes to have some fun, so you decide to get a sled and slide down that hill. On your first few rides, it’s kind of hard to predict where you’ll end up. But the more you slide down, the more tracks begin to form. By the end of the day you will notice that some tracks have been used much more than the others, and they’ve become quite entrenched.
Once you find yourself on those tracks, it’s really hard to get off them, as they take over. It’s the same with your behavior. You can look at those tracks as your neural connections. If you’ve been repeating a behavior for years now, it’s probably become so ingrained, that it’s very difficult to stop yourself once the behavior takes place. You might be even performing it on autopilot.
This is why saying to yourself: “just one drink”, “just a few minutes”, “just one video”, simply doesn’t work if you’re an addict. Sure, you might only want to go for a short ride, but it’s very easy to start sliding down the same tracks as you used to. Just one more, quickly turns into a lot more. So unfortunately, for some people, moderation isn’t an option any longer, as those connections have become too ingrained. Complete abstinence is the only sustainable solution here.
But for those of us who have less severe forms of addiction, moderation is possible. However it still requires the same 4 tactics that I mentioned earlier. Particularly the barrier part. Only in this case the usage is strictly limited and we have something set in place that can stop us from going overboard. So in my case this means restricting my consumption to a narrow time window. I’ve done that by setting the FocusMe app to only allow me to play a certain amount of time per day. Once I reach that limit, I’m done. FocusMe simply doesn’t let me access the websites and apps that I’ve decided to block, for the rest of the day. And I have no choice, but to do something more productive.
You can do the same, by restricting your consumption to certain times of the day, week or month. Perhaps only on holidays, only on the weekends, never before 5pm, and so on… Also, every couple of months, I now take a complete 1-2 week break from my addiction. Even if I let myself indulge in a controlled way, eventually I’ll start getting more and more cravings and I’ll want to indulge more. But by routinely abstaining for a week or two, I weaken those connections and let the balance reset, not letting it go out of control. In that time I always realize that I can do without my drug of choice, as other, more useful activities take over. And the cravings weaken substantially.
It might seem like I’m restricting my own freedom, but this actually allows me to enjoy my addiction in moderation, while making the most out of it, and not just mindlessly doing it out of habit.
As you can see, I’m not advocating for you to not have any fun at all. But to be more mindful of the behavior you engage in on a daily basis, especially any activity that leads to large increases in dopamine. Remember, you’re creating a path on a snowy hill. You don’t want to be constantly repeating something that you don’t want to be a part of your life. And I fully understand that it’s difficult to resist.
Nowadays, everything is designed to be as addictive as possible. The food industry is designing food with the right proportion of salt, sugar and fat, just to make it impossible to eat only one piece of chocolate. The social media giants are spending thousands of hours testing and tweaking the algorithms, just to make you stay on their platform longer.
Also, some people have their pain/pleasure balance constantly tilted towards pain. It could be genetic, it could come from unresolved trauma, or it could be a bad living situation. But these people are more prone to addiction, as they need to cope with their emotions somehow. So, I don’t blame you if you fall prey to addiction. It can happen to anyone. It doesn’t make you a bad person and it’s not a moral failing.
But once you understand all of this, you can start taking control of your life again. Once you begin cutting these highly dopaminergic and addictive things out of your life, you realize not only that they aren’t a good solution for your problems, but also that they’re probably the root cause or are amplifying them.
So, hopefully, you follow the steps laid out in this video and challenge yourself to abstinence. Like I said in the beginning, you don’t have to add a ton of new behaviors to get your life in order, just get rid of the ones holding you down. That’s how you become better than yesterday. By shedding away one addiction at a time.
Thanks for watching. If you enjoyed this video make sure to gently tap that like button. It helps the channel grow and I appreciate it a lot. And who knows, maybe making videos like this one will become my new addiction. See you in the next one.
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