One of the hardest things about change can be acknowledging the need to make it. And that’s often because we blame ourselves for the predicament we’re in, and for not having changed already. The pain of that self-judgment can make it nearly impossible to look honestly at our behavior and how we might do things differently.
That’s why I really appreciated Richard Friedman’s article, What Cookies and Meth Have in Common. It’s all about how the combination of our environment and our brains set the perfect stage for addiction — and all sorts of other self-destructive behaviors. That we eat too many cookies or drink too much wine or lash out in anger under stress isn’t our fault, in a sense. These sorts of habits are what our brains naturally do: seek comfort or “reward” of some sort when under stress. And since our society sanctions and even encourages all sorts of destructive habits, whether by companies selling “comfort food” or cocktails, or by leaders modeling rage-filled behavior, it’s not surprising our brains give in to those. Once we start down that path, though, it can be harder and harder to stop.
That’s because, as Friedman explains, our brains produce dopamine, which conveys a sense of pleasure in response to immediate “rewards” like sex, food, money and drugs. But the more we have those rewards, the more the brain needs them to experience even a normal, healthy dose of pleasure. Ordinary pleasures that don’t include the addictive substance become harder to appreciate. Our brains literally lose their pleasure receptors.
Although we don’t normally think of anger as addictive in this way, it can be, because it can feel good in the moment and give us a fleeting illusion of power and control.
Whatever the behavior, it can become automatic, not because we’re morally flawed, but because our brains are operating according to an ingrained pattern. The key to breaking that pattern is first to become aware of it, and then to consciously create new, healthier alternative patterns of behavior that serve us better.
None of this is particularly new or surprising. But I’m repeatedly struck by how difficult people find it even to acknowledge their own unhealthy patterns of behavior. And I think it’s because we blame ourselves for them, and that’s extremely painful. Continuing the behavior allows us to avoid that pain.
What Friedman’s and other research shows is that none of this is our “fault” in any moral sense. A combination of stressful conditions in our environment and easy access to an immediate unhealthy “reward” can lead us quickly down the road to addiction.
Although some people are more genetically predisposed to certain kinds of addictions than others, and at this point there’s little we can do to change that, we can change our environments in critical ways that encourage us to make healthier choices.
Obvious stress reducers include exercise, meditation and yoga, for example. And we can consciously limit our access to addictive and unhealthy substances.
But one often-overlooked way of reducing the stress that sustains our unwanted behaviors is simply to recognize that the behavior itself is not a moral flaw or defect. We are not to blame. It’s simply a brain pattern. By recognizing and acknowledging it, and then paying careful attention to how we react to our environment and doing our best to create a healthier one, even our brain patterns become something we can change.