In my experience, addiction is rooted in Pavlovian behavior. I’ll explain…
I noticed it when I quit smoking (Yes, Yes, I was also a smoker). The first challenge was getting rid of the nicotine addiction. That was hell, but it only took two weeks. A much bigger challenge was getting rid of my smoking habits. Even when I didn’t need a cigarette for the nicotine, I still felt an almost overwhelming urge to light up in the following cases:
1. When I was excited
2. When I was sad
3. When I was stressed out (which happened a lot since I was the CEO of a struggling startup at the time)
4. When I drank coffee
5. After sex
And that’s just a partial list.
A few times, the need to smoke was so strong, I slipped. And bear in mind that at that point I couldn’t even stand the smell or taste of cigarettes.
And still… I smoked. Despite knowing that it would be disgusting . Despite knowing I would need to go through nicotine-withdrawal hell all over again. And despite the fact that my lovely, gentle wife would kill me dead if she found out.
And still, the conditioning was so strong, it took me more than a year to get from under it.
Why this happens
Well… it’s pretty simple. The nicotine in the cigarettes and the sugar in the snacks stimulate our brain’s pleasure center.
So when we repeatedly compensate ourselves with pleasure (chocolate) while feeling an emotion (sad) and every time we reward ourselves (cigarette) after performing a specific action (drink coffee), we are training ourselves to associate that action or feeling with the snack or with the cigarette.
This association is created at the primal level of our brain (our lizard brain). That’s why it’s so hard to fight it. That’s why these urges ‘appear’ out of the blue.
What to do to stop snacking
1. Stop being ashamed – you are not weak. You are just very well trained to snack.
2. Make a list of snacking triggers – Be honest. Make a complete list of all the feelings/situations that send you on a snack hunt.
3. Choose an alternative reward – Find a behavior that gives you pleasure and that’s healthy. It’s also a good idea to chose something you can do anywhere and doesn’t take long to do, Like talking to a friend or listening to a song on your iPod or doing one yoga exercise.
4. Start small – Pick one trigger that causes you to snack from the list above and decide to replace its reward/compensation with the healthy alternative.
5. Repeat for 30-60 days – This is the amount of time it usually takes to re-train your brain.
6. Continue to the next trigger – Once you’ve re-trained yourself for a specific trigger, you can move on to the next one. The second one will be a lot easier, because you’ve already succeeded once.
I’ve used this technique to quit smoking and stop snacking. The only problem was I substituted the smokes and the snacks for reading comics and watching TV. So now I have to quit those.
Well… nobody’s perfect (yet)
I need your help…
I want to compile a comprehensive list of healthy alternative habits. I would love it if you could think of something that you (a) love to do and (b) you can easily do anywhere and (c) don’t require a great deal of preparation.
And then either leave them as a comment on my facebook page or here on the blog.