“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace, you are living in the present.” – Lao Tzu, Ancient Chinese philosopher
All humans have certain psychological needs: a need for belonging; to feel seen and valued; to have purpose and meaning; to feel hopeful for the future. These needs contribute to our wellbeing and when they are unmet, we can face a variety of negative consequences such as depression and anxiety, or engage in dysfunctional, addictive behaviors. At the core of addiction is not wanting to be present in your life because your life is too painful a place to be. “Addiction is often most severe and hardest to recover from where oppressive conditions are disproportionally present in one’s life”. For instance, social factors such as incarceration, homelessness, unemployment, and adverse childhood experiences make you more vulnerable to addiction. On the other hand, we’re all susceptible to compulsive behavior in a pleasure-stimulating world, especially while tethered to our smartphones. In addition, social isolation and loneliness (made worse by the pandemic), along with the stress and challenges of daily life, are well-known craving triggers that we’re all prone to.
When we’re in the throes of these unfavorable circumstances and negative emotions, we’ll often escape using addictive substances such as alcohol, drugs, or craveable foods. We’ll also self-soothe our vulnerable mental state through our digital devices. Each time we text, post a Like on Facebook or Instagram, or scroll through social media, we activate the “craving” neurotransmitter dopamine to satisfy our innate need for human connection. Overcoming our craving mind is not a matter of willpower. It goes much deeper into our evolutionary past to understand why it’s so difficult to break compulsive behaviors.
The Primitive Mind and Why Willpower Doesn’t Work
From an evolutionary perspective, human brains evolved to help us survive. We needed to eat and not be eaten, and we needed to bond together in tribes to help protect ourselves from predators and harsh environments. We also needed to procreate to keep our species evolving. The learning process of struggling daily to find high-caloric food, a mate and a dependable tribe were motivations for survival. Thus, the human mind evolved to seek tasty food, sex and social connections. These survival instincts are still with us today, but we no longer live in a world of scarcity. We now live in a world of overwhelming abundance, and we can meet any of our pleasurable needs with the click of an app. Furthermore, unregulated food and beverage companies and the high-tech industry are fully aware of our pleasure-craving tendencies. They lure us with disingenuous marketing and dopamine-enhancing products aimed directly at the part of our brains that crave immediate reward. The easy access and availability of unhealthy foods and other addictive substances and products undermines our ability to know how to manage our behavior. The pandemic has only exacerbated our dependence on our digital devices, as well as alcohol and drugs.
In order to come to grips with our compulsive behaviors, psychiatrist and author, Dr. Anna Lembke, believes it’s important that we understand the neurological process of the “feel good” hormone dopamine. As the brain’s major reward and pleasure neurotransmitter, “it’s what drives us to seek pizza when we’re hungry and sex when we’re aroused”. However, your body wants to self-regulate through a process called homeostasis, meaning that with every pleasurable high, there’s a low, or dopamine dip. This is why highly addictive substances such as heroin, cocaine, nicotine, and alcohol are so hard to overcome. The body’s natural desire for homeostasis leads to increased drug tolerance, especially with higher addictive substances. The withdrawal states of these substances are so debilitating that the addict will risk everything in pursuit of their next high – jeopardizing their job, marriage, family and friends, as well as their health and even their life as we’ve witnessed with the opioid epidemic. But we can also have a “comedown state” after eating a piece of chocolate, watching our favorite Netflix series, or scrolling our Facebook and Instagram feeds. We can’t keep ourselves from wanting that second piece of chocolate or viewing another episode or clicking to watch another amusing YouTube video.
While it’s wise to practice moderation in all things to tame compulsive behaviors, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to do so in our tech-dependent, dopamine-overloaded world. Dr. Lembke says that digital media and our dependency on our smartphones has turned us all into addicts to varying degrees. “Every spare second is an opportunity to be stimulated”, whether by scrolling social media and newsfeeds, or bingeing on porn, online gaming and gambling, or e-shopping. In essence, these are “physiological crutches” to manage our moods and escape from the world when life is difficult. Therefore, Lembke suggests we take a “dopamine fast” because recovery starts with abstinence. She recommends that we try to abstain from our compulsive habits for at least 4 weeks, because that’s about how long it takes to reset the brain’s reward pathway. However, if you’ve been a chronic abuser of highly addictive substances like alcohol or opioids, this will require professional intervention.
One of the most effective ways to abstain from a bad habit is to change your environment and get rid of the visual trigger cues that set off the habit in the first place. If you don’t have a visual cue, you won’t set off the unconscious habit loop. The more barriers you put in place to make it hard for you to access your “drug of choice”, the better. For instance, if you can’t stop scrolling through trivial social media posts, or shopping and gaming online, put your phone in a desk drawer and turn off your WiFi connection for an extended amount of time. If your habit is snacking on sugary/salty foods or mixing yourself a cocktail after a stressful day of work, keep the addictive foods and beverages out of your house! By doing so you’ve resolved the out of sight out of mind temptation. However, taming a bad habit requires a lot of planning. Making a healthier grocery list and meal plan can lead us to choosing potatoes in the produce aisle over potato chips at the checkout line, or bringing produce home to cook instead of visiting fast food outlets on our way home from work.
The main message is to stop seeking pleasure, comfort and convenience all the time. We’ve forgotten how to be alone with our thoughts. We’re forever “interrupting ourselves”, as Lembke puts it, for a quick digital hit, meaning we rarely concentrate on challenging tasks, read thought provoking books or get into a creative flow. She’s urging us to make space in our brains to let our thoughts “wash over us” rather than constantly seeking stimulation. You can achieve this by practicing mindfulness, which is the ability to be fully present and aware of what you’re sensing and feeling in the moment, without judgment. There are many ways to practice mindfulness to calm our pleasure-seeking mind: focusing on your breath, paying attention to your senses — touch, sight, smell, taste and sound, or listening to silence, and being curious about the world.
Balancing Pleasure with Pain
Another strategy that Lembke advocates is replacing pleasure-seeking habits with “painful” pursuits. When we do things that are challenging or uncomfortable – learning a new skill, exerting ourselves during physical activity (e.g. taking the stairs instead of the elevator), taking an ice bath or sauna, talking to a stranger or speaking in public, offering to help a person in need – instead of receiving a dopamine boost beforehand, we experience it afterwards. “Doing things that are hard is one of the best ways to pursue a life worth living, because the pleasure we get afterwards is more enduring”.
In a world of endless pleasurable pursuits, literally at our fingertips, it’s easy to escape from the stresses of daily life. Our craving to self-soothe our sensitive emotional state can be as mundane as compulsively checking Instagram or Twitter, or it can lead to more addictive cravings of alcohol, sugary sodas and fast food, or online gambling, porn and shopping. Associated with our cravings, one might also be seeking attention, validation, social connection or an escape from loneliness, boredom, a dysfunctional relationship or a dreadful, meaningless job. To find balance in our lives, Dr. Lembke recommends to “stop running away from whatever we’re try to escape”, and instead to stop, turn and face our problems.
Remember, if we replace compulsive, pleasurable pursuits with difficult and challenging pursuits, we restore the pleasure/pain balance in our lives. The rewards of overcoming life difficulties are not immediate or permanent, but they accumulate in a positive direction. When you’re able to be curious and enjoy life’s simple pleasures like watching the sun rise, making someone smile, or walking with a friend, you know you’re heading on the right path towards a happier, more fulfilling life!