Addiction is defined as uncontrollably seeking out pleasure or reward, despite negative consequences. Many people consider addiction to be a “disease” or something that they’ll have to battle for the rest of their lives. While it is impossible to become addicted to something you never try, individuals with pleasure-seeking personalities, reward deficiency syndrome, and mood disorders may seek out or resort to using addictive drugs or engaging in addictive behaviors as a way to cope.
Drugs are an extremely common form of addiction, but there are many other types of addictions including: food, gambling, porn, sex, work, Facebook, and even exercise. These are all things and activities that elicit changes in neurotransmitter levels and stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center. Consistently turning to an addiction rewires the brain, making it difficult to overcome without the right strategy.
Battling an addiction is like waging war with your own brain. If you’ve struggled with an addiction for a prolonged period, your brain is currently winning the battle with your effort. Effort that you put forth to control your addiction comes from the prefrontal cortex. The wiring supporting the addiction is from the older, animalistic center of the brain. To overcome any addiction, it is important to strengthen the prefrontal cortex to overpower the pleasure-seeking region.
How to Overcome Any Addiction
This should be prefaced by stating that not everyone will be able to overcome their addiction. However, by following the tips presented below, you should be able to skew the odds in your favor of overcoming whatever addicting habit or behavior is controlling your life.
1. Activate & Strengthen the Prefrontal Cortex
To help overcome the animalistic drives that power your addiction, you’re going to want to stimulate and strengthen activity in the prefrontal region of your brain. The prefrontal cortex is a region that is responsible for higher-thinking, organization of thoughts, and directing your attention. High activity in this region is correlated with improved self-awareness and self-control.
It is this region that distinguishes humans from other animals. Perhaps the easiest way to strengthen your prefrontal cortex is by practicing meditation. There’s no need to attach any form of religion to the meditation, simply meditate for 10 minutes a day. One easy form of meditation that you can use is called “breath-meditation” or “concentrative-meditation.”
Sit somewhere relaxing and set your phone timer for 10 minutes. Gently close your eyes and focus on your breathing. If your attention drifts, calmly bring it back to the breath. Each time your mind wanders, calmly and slowly bring your focus back to the breath. Although you may not be sold on this technique, the science supports it.
If you really want to take all thinking out of the meditation, use the app “Headspace” – you can get 10 sessions free and you can keep repeating them. If you want more sessions, you can buy them, but the 10 free ones will suffice if you don’t have much money. Don’t get too concerned with the type of meditation you’re doing, just do it daily for the PFC strength to overpower your animal brain.
- Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25741245
2. Calculate Opportunity Cost
If you need motivation to overcome a particular addiction, it is important to think about the opportunity cost. Consider someone who wants to quit smoking cigarettes. Chances are the person hasn’t really accepted the potential that the cigarettes could: take 10-20 years off their life, decrease the quality of their life, increase healthcare costs, create more health problems (e.g. cancer), and cost a significant amount of money.
Take the time to calculate out the amount of money and/or time you spend engaging in a particular addiction. Think about both the money and the time that you’re taking away from yourself by feeding the addiction. Now think about how much money and time you’d save if you didn’t have to worry about the addiction.
Write down the opportunity costs and use them as a source of motivation. Many people are so unconsciously entrenched in their addictive behavior, that they aren’t even consciously aware that the addiction is taking a major toll on their life. Some people have successfully kicked their addictive habit just by considering the cumulative opportunity costs.
3. Self-Directed Neuroplasticity
What many people fail to understand is that they can actually rewire the neural pathways in their brain to help overcome any addiction. Self-directed neuroplasticity refers to your human ability to direct your attention and use your willpower to engage in a behavior different from your addiction. For example, someone with an addiction to marijuana may get a craving for the drug.
By using “self-directed neuroplasticity” the goal would be to recognize the “craving” as coming from a dysfunctional part of the animal brain. Then instead of acting on the craving, you engage in a completely different, healthy behavior. Your prefrontal cortex recognizes the craving as an animalistic urge, accepts that it’s faulty brain wiring, and you immediately force yourself (with willpower) to partake in something healthy like going for a walk or gardening.
You then keep up the healthy activity for at least 15 to 20 minutes each time the craving hits. To better prepare yourself for the cravings, you should have a list of alternative activities (to the addiction) so that you aren’t struggling to come up with ideas. With consistent practice, your brain will come to associate the “craving” with the “new activity” instead of the marijuana. This can work for all sorts of addictions, and brain scans prove it.
4. Eliminate Triggers
Most people with addictions have certain “triggers” or stimuli that entice them to carry out the addictive behavior. These triggers can come in the form of places (the environment), people (social), and certain items (e.g. a pipe). The goal is to eliminate all of these possible triggers to ensure that you’re successful. It may be difficult to eliminate the triggers, but it can be done.
- Mechanical triggers: Start by eliminating mechanical triggers or objects that make you crave a particular addiction. If you’re addicted to porn, you can start by throwing away your entire stash. If you’re addicted to smoking marijuana, you can throw away your pipes, supply, and other smoking devices. Keeping these mechanical triggers around will make it much more difficult to quit because each time one catches your eye, it may induce craving.
- Environmental triggers: It’s probably not a good idea to hang out places that fuel your addiction. If you are addicted to alcohol and go to a particular bar, you should make an effort to avoid that particular place. If you go to the park each time you smoke, you may want to stay away from the park for awhile. Certain environments will stimulate memories of you engaging in the addiction, which could trigger a desire. Obviously if you gamble, a visit to the casino wouldn’t be a smart idea.
- Social triggers: Perhaps the most difficult aspect of overcoming an addiction is to realize that the people you’re hanging out with may be fueling your behavior. While this isn’t the case for everyone, many people smoke, drink, and do drugs socially. Surrounding yourself with other enablers or addicts is setting yourself up for failure. You should take your social life very seriously when trying to overcome any addiction. Disconnect from friends that enable your addiction, and seek out new social contacts that don’t. It may take awhile for you to make new friends, but it can be done.
5. Manage Free Time & Boredom
One of the biggest blunders people make when trying to overcome any addiction is managing their newfound free time. They notice that they have so much extra time now that they aren’t gambling or trying to get drugs, that they don’t know what to do. It is important to know what to do when you’re feeling “bored” so that you don’t turn back to the same meddling addiction.
My suggestion is to make a list of activities that you enjoy, that can be pursued when boredom strikes or you feel like you have a ton of free time. People often don’t realize how much time is freed up when they quit a particular drug and when they’re given the extra time, they complain of boredom. To cope with the boredom and freedom of the extra time, do anything that you enjoy (other than the addiction).
Some examples of things you could do in your free time include: call an old friend, volunteer, go bowling, read a book, write in a journal, prepare a meal, housework, go for a walk outside, play a sport, take up a new hobby, join a club, get a job, etc. There are so many options to choose from, you just have to pick one that you like. Keep a list posted with a reminder of activities that you can pursue when boredom strikes.
It is completely unnecessary to take supplements to help overcome an addiction, but certain ones may be helpful, especially when withdrawing from a drug. Do your research and determine whether you’d benefit from any supplement, but don’t come to view a supplement as a “magic bullet.” Realize that if you’re doing everything listed here, you won’t need supplements to help, but they can act as another tool to help you kick a particular habit.
Also consider eating an optimal diet for mental health and understand that the food you consume will affect both physical and mental health. I’ve found that fish oil supplements work very well to optimize neurotransmission and strengthen activity in the prefrontal cortex. Other supplements like melatonin may help if you’re going through a “withdrawal.”
After time has passed, not only will your prefrontal cortex be stronger, but your brain will be rewired. Cravings will have likely subsided, but even if they still strike, you counterstrike with self-directed behaviors rather than those stemming from your animalistic brain. You will have likely made a new friend or two and separated yourself from old contacts that enable your addiction.
You don’t have any mechanical triggers around the house, and if you get bored with all the extra free time, you have a list of things you can do. With each day, you are building momentum towards becoming a healthier, stronger version of yourself. The first few months of quitting your addiction may have felt like pushing a giant boulder up a mountain. Now that you’ve built momentum, you need to keep pushing with proper maintenance.
Eventually the boulder is going to reach the peak of the mountain, and start rolling downhill (e.g. no cravings, fully rewired brain, etc.). You’ll know when it starts rolling downhill when you no longer experience any cravings for your previous addiction. It should be noted that the time it takes to reach this point is subject to individual variation; everyone is different and certain addictions may be tougher to kick than others.
8. Let Time Pass
When you first attempt to overcome an addiction, realize that you may fail. While failing isn’t the end of the world, it is something that should be taken seriously and examined. Why did you fail? What can you do to prevent failure in the future? Chances are that you struggled to implement a particular piece of advice within this article, and that’s alright. It may take some people longer than others to make new friends and for activity in the prefrontal cortex to ramp up.
There’s no need to expect results to come overnight, or even within a week. It may take one person significantly longer than another to cope with their particular journey towards overcoming an addiction. As you continue to practice “maintenance” of the aforementioned suggestions, realize that you’re going to become stronger the longer you go without engaging in the addiction.
Do you really want to overcome your addiction?
Many people claim to try to overcome their addiction, but they don’t really want it. Just like people claim that they really want to get in shape, but never hit the gym. Just like people claiming they want a high-quality partner, but they’re looking in the wrong places (e.g. bars). Overcoming any addiction is something you’ve got to really want with 100% conviction. If you only “kind-of” want it, you’re not going to overcome it.
Whether you’re addicted to shopping and could save $1000s per month by overcoming the addiction, or are addicted to heroin and want to stop using it to save yourself money and maximize your human potential – it’s something that you’ve got to want for yourself. Stopping any addictive behavior shouldn’t be something you’re doing to appease someone else, it should stem from an intrinsic desire to improve your existence.
Numerous people have overcome addictions to the hardest street drugs, nicotine, alcohol, sex, etc. without any sort of guidance. They’ve done it with sheer motivation and willpower, which is difficult to do. By taking action and implementing the suggestions above, it is my hope that you will be able to kick your addiction and ultimately save yourself money and time, improve your health, and maximize your human potential.
Wonderful article with tons of useful suggegstions and insight as to how the brain works and ways of controlling our addictions. Thank you!
This is wonderful advice and has given me hope. Thank you!
Thank you for this very useful information. While I am unable to sleep tonight due to my withdrawal symptoms I will start making my lists so I can be ready for tomorrow. I now have something to look forward to over the following days while working on my list and finding the things to add.