“On January 1st I’m going to give up drinking, smoking and start exercising. On January 2nd I’m going to get therapy for my compulsive lying! “
It will very soon be that time of year when the papers and magazines are full of articles on diets, exercising, healthy recipes and new things to do with your life.
And what better time than a new year a bit of for reflection and transformation, so why not?
But for many people it’s Groundhog Day, giving up or taking up the same things as this time last year, only for it to collapse within a few weeks, or days. They momentarily chastise their lack of willpower, but soon forget about it and go back to eating sugary foods, drinking alcohol, cancel their gym membership or revert to wasting hours every day scrolling through social media content.
So why are these promises we make to transform our lives in a small way, seemingly unsustainable? Is it really about willpower?
To get in insight as to what is going on, let’s examine some basic neuroscience and understand a bit about the nature of addiction and habit. Then can we look at some techniques to overcome the innate barriers within us.
The power of Dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter chemical in the brain that is often referred to as the reward chemical or the reward pathway and although this is true, it’s a bit misleading. People talk about getting a “dopamine hit” when they are doing something enjoyable, but in fact dopamine is a motivating chemical and the surge happens in expectation and anticipation of the ‘pleasurable’ activity. It plays a vital role in us learning new tricks and skills and without it, the human race wouldn’t have been curious enough to survive.
But there are 2 important factors to consider:
- Dopamine can be hijacked by an addiction or a habit to give you selective amnesia. That’s why when you go to open that second bottle of wine you think about the immediate short-term pleasure that it promises (although rarely delivers), but you forget about the hangover and feelings of regret that you will wake up to the following day.
- The more you do something the less of a buzz you will get. So, in order to replicate the level, you need to up the ante (switching to a harder drug, cracking a third bottle of wine, watching more extreme pornography, gambling larger amounts, …)
All this is going on inside your brain without you being consciously aware.
You may have resolved to give something up in your conscious mind, but it’s the emotional centre of your brain that is being bombarded with messages from other parts of the brain and body that are laced with increasing amounts of dopamine. It’s like trying to resist louder and louder alerts on your phone, eventually you feel you have to look, and *bang* you’ve eaten that biscuit or uninstalled that gambling-site blocker. And once you have given in once, what’s the point of continuing with the torture?
The power of habit and trance
Ask a 20-a-day smoker how many cigarettes they had yesterday and, of course, the answer in 20. But ask them how many they really had, ones that they enjoyed to the point that they can still remember the experience today. It’s usually only the first one of the day and one or two others. The rest were consumed in a kind of trance-like state, and mostly as part of a conscious or unconscious association. Some smokers feel that they couldn’t possibly enjoy a cup of coffee or an alcoholic drink without the accompanying cigarette. But of course, there is no physical association between these substances and other people can happily take one without the other.
An online gambler will believe that they have been online for maybe ten or fifteen minutes when in fact it has been well over an hour. Such is the trance-like nature of the addiction; they are compelled to click away as fast as possible as if they were time-limited, the ratio of wins and losses is lost in the frantic scrambling.
So, when faced with these inbuilt obstacles, what can we do to make our new year commitments to ourselves sustainable? Here are some suggestions that are perhaps more relevant to giving up something rather than starting something new.
Delay and make a conscious decision
The purpose here is to delay the craving long enough to ride it out and make it a conscious decision rather than an unconscious one. Put a note somewhere to remind you do to this – on the fridge, your phone or laptop, the cookie jar, the cigarette packet... Then try one (or both) of the following self-hypnotic techniques. Give yourself five minutes and if at the end you still want to indulge, then fill your boots!
Go inside yourself
This is technique known as scrambling.
- Close your eyes and imagine what that first sip of drink, puff of cigarette, placing of a bet, reading of a social media message, ... will be like. Really summon up all the sensations of that in as close a proximity as possible without actually doing it. The taste, the sight, the sounds, all sensations, ...
- Open your eyes and make a mental note of what that was like. Close them again and now imagine the second sip, puff, bet, scroll, whatever it is. Again, summon a realistic picture in your mind of this and notice that it wasn’t as fulfilling or satisfying as the first.
- Open your eyes and again make a mental note of how that felt. Close them and go to a point where you are starting a second glass, bottle, cigarette, your gambling funds are quite depleted, you are scrolling but no longer taking anything in, …. Again, getting a realistic sense of what that feels like. How satisfying is that?
- Open your eyes and close them once more. This time skipping to a point in the near future, maybe the morning after. Summon those physical sensations, you might feel bloated or wiped out by your activity. What about mentally – perhaps feelings of guilt, regret, even self-loathing. Whatever the feelings are, bring those to the fore and notice what that is like.
- Run through these steps again a few times, but mix them up in a random order, varying the order each time.
Notice how less strong that pull feels now and consider whether you really want to indulge or not. If you still do, go ahead - at least you have made a conscious decision to continue; and maybe try this again next time and see if you can evoke those feelings a little stronger.
Go outside yourself
This is sometimes referred to as the observer position.
Remember the movie Sliding Doors where Gwyneth Paltrow experiences 2 parallel futures depending on whether she did / didn’t manage to catch her train? This technique is based on similar lines.
- Close your eyes and imagine watching yourself from the outside in a distant future where you have continued with your unwanted addiction or habit. Notice how it has affected you in the longer term – your situation, your health, your family and others around you. Focus on your posture and general demeanour and how friends, family or colleagues react to you. Don’t be afraid to go to extremes where you are homeless, separated, obese, critically ill, bankrupt, … See the detail in the picture in front of you and take in the sounds (perhaps loved ones crying or the beat of hospital monitoring equipment). Really get a sense of how this feels when observed from the outside.
- Open your eyes and close them again and now watch yourself in the alternate, parallel future where you didn’t give in to your cravings. Again, take note of details such as what you are wearing and who is around you. Perhaps it seems like a weight has been lifted from you and you are enjoying a new sense of freedom. What are you doing? – maybe it’s something that you would never have considered while still partaking in your habit or addiction. What is the mood and general ambience like in this scene and what about it tells you that this "future you" is more content with life?
Take a moment to consider how you feel after these 2 visualisations and decide if you want to indulge or not. Again, don’t put too much pressure on yourself if you still feel that you do want to. Maybe think about adjustments you can make next time you try it to make it more powerful.
Realise that it’s not just that one thing you have to change
If you have resolved to make changes, there are 4 other key factors you may need to consider.
We will use alcohol as the example here, but it equally applies to other things.
- A belief that your life is better with alcohol. If you think your enjoyment is going to be impaired but you will push yourself through it, then it’s probably not going to be sustainable. Focus instead on things you will enjoy about being sober, like waking up feeling refreshed, observing the behaviour of your friends as the alcohol level goes up, improvement to your health, …
- People who may want you to continue. Your friends may actively encourage you to cave in: “Come on, just one won’t hurt you!” Be very firm and blunt with them and ask them why it’s important to them that you continue to drink. Make your friends and family aware of what you are doing in advance. Drop any "friends" that won’t accept this new you. Yes, really!
- Excuses to yourself of why you can’t do it. “It’s my birthday next month, so I will wait until after then,” “I deserve the occasional drink as a reward for a bad day at work,” “I’m not in the right mindset to handle this right now.” It’s best to pre-empt these – write down a list of likely barriers and your firm answer to rebuff them.
- Self-identifying as a drinker. This one is a bit more subtle, but if you frequently dine out on ‘amusing’ anecdotes about drunken times, then you probably consider it as part of your identity and that can be quite a hard thing to let go of. Think about how you would prefer to define yourself (as a partner, parent, professional, joker, caring, …)
Let's face it - nobody wants to give stuff up.
So, instead of losing weight, think of it as gaining fitness and vitality. Instead of drinking less, think of it as enjoying more social occasions with a clear head.
Rather than going on a diet, choose to make it a lifestyle choice to eat more healthily.
This last one brings out another important point. If you go on a diet, it tends to have a specific target or an end point. Once you hit the end, your journey can have a tendency to veer back in the other direction. So, rather than setting a target, make milestones that don't indicate it will come to an end. For instance, that 5k parkrun by the end of April could be a milestone, followed by a 10k or half marathon by the Autumn. A 2 inch slimmer waistline by June can be an interim target towards further gains of slimness.
To sum up
We are wired to continue with our habits and addictions, regardless of whether they serve us well or badly. Much of this is driven by our subconscious mind, we react to something in our environment rather than making an informed decision. By pausing and invoking images of reality, we can make it much more of a conscious decision. Moreover, if we frame it as a positive change, we are more likely to be motivated to continue.
In time this technique becomes easier, quicker, perhaps automatic but other factors may come into play to tempt you back, but you can prepare for these and rehearse your response to them.
Finally, good luck. Make this the year that you make a sustainable positive change. Get in touch if you would like some help.