”Certain habits of men are like luxurious vines: they destroy the trees they decorate.” Abraham Lincoln
Habits are our friends – when they are good once. Habits are routines that help us perform multiple tasks with minimal mental effort. They help us repeat safe and effective behaviours, and build consistency and security in our lives.
In mechanical fashion we drive a familiar route to work, brush our teeth from front to back, enjoy our daily walk with the dog, twist a certain lock of hair when we are nervous, or put the right shoe on before left.
The brain is constantly learning new ways to increase the efficiency with which we perceive and respond to our world. Just as commercial airplanes can fly a perfect course on automatic pilot, freeing the captain to watch for danger and monitor the controls, so habits – the brain’s automatic pilot – enable us to perform safe, effective routines that help us cope with daily life. At the same time they free up mental resources for making new decisions in meeting the necessary challenges and changes of an uncertain world.
Automation in planes and brains is great, but what happens when the automatic pilot becomes dysfunctional and get stuck in the wrong routine? Every other control is weakened or rendered powerless with disaster looming on the horizon unless the renegade routine is righted. Instead of being tame servants, dysfunctional habits can become ruthless tyrants – relentless, illogical, expensive, depressing, isolating, and destructive. They weave themselves around us like silken cobwebs but soon become iron chains that squeeze us more tightly the more we struggle to get free.
It has been said that old habits die hard, and that is true. But the fact is that they can and do die and it is possible to change – because life is all about change. The brain is more than just ”a device for recording change”; because as we change, the brain changes right along with us!
Forming new habits – or breaking old ones – is one way that the brain changes. Habits can range in intensity from mildly annoying, such as the nervous accountant who keeps his fingernails bitten, to the illogical and uncontrollable, such as the compulsive bulimic who engages in food bingeing and purging many times a day. Bad habits can sometimes become addictions. Addiction is viewed in many and varied ways. In the past, the term addiction was used only to refer to the compulsive need for and use of a habit – forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol). Addictions were characterized by drug tolerance and the withdrawal symptoms a user experienced when not using the drug.
Sigmund Freud’s use of tobacco provides a good example of serious addiction to a substance: nicotine. Smoking about 20 cigars a day caused Freud to have a serious heart arrhythmia, and upon the advice of a friend he tried to stop. But Freud found the subsequent depression during periods of abstinence almost unbearable. He continued to smoke heavily despite admitting that it hindered his analytic studies.
He later developed sores on his palate and jaw that failed to heal, so he had surgery – the first of 33 for cancer. He complained that he was out of work and could not swallow, yet he continued to smoke. His heart condition forced him to retire, and he eventually had to have his entire jaw removed and an artificial jaw substituted. In constant pain, often he could not speak, chew or swallow. Yet Freud continued to smoke what a friend termed ”an endless series of cigars.”
However, drugs are not the only factor in addiction. Freud’s long-term compulsive, destructive drug behavior, even after months of abstinence, is truly remarkable, since it takes only 30 hours for nicotine to clear the system. Clearly, a failure to stop cannot be linked to the discomfort of withdrawal symptoms alone. Such conclusions have triggered a broader understanding of the meaning of addiction, and what it encompasses.
Today, addiction has been more broadly defined to include not only the use of drugs but also persistent compulsive behaviors that are harmful or destructive, characterized by an inability to stop. It is recognized that structural changes take place in the brain when any addiction occurs, whether or not drugs are involved.
While most people are aware of the acute, short-term withdrawal symptoms with some addictions, they are not aware that there are long-term effects that can last for years. to hope that a recovering addict will be ”back to normal”within a couple of months after treatment is neither realistic nor fair for the addict. Nestler and Landsman affirm that a major feature of addiction is its chronicity. A person can experience intense cravings for the substance, activity, or behavior and remain at increased risk for relapse even after years of abstinence, especially if they don’t develop proper strategies for long-term success.