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10 Big Ideas About Ending Habits and Addictions

by Dr. Amy Johnson on June 5, 2014

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Everyone I’ve ever met has had some habit or addiction they’d like to kick for good. And nearly everyone I’ve ever met has lots of opinions on how to do that. 

The 10 big ideas that follow are adaptations from the latest cutting-edge neuroscience research and some very powerful spiritual principles. This is the approach that has worked permanently and almost effortlessly for me. I hope it will do the same for you.

The Top 10 Big Ideas

1. It’s Not You, It’s Your Brain

You are much more than your brain, just like you’re much more than your finger. If your finger became injured, you wouldn’t take it personally. It wouldn’t reflect on you as an individual; it wouldn’t say anything about your character.

You wouldn’t need to explore your past or dive into your emotions in order for your finger to heal. 

And you don’t need to do those things in order for your habit or addiction to end. Your brain is addicted or habituated, period. “You” are just experiencing the effects of being a human being with a brain. Your brain can change without “you” needing to.   

2. Part of Your Brain that Represents Your Habit Can’t Possibly Act on Your Habit

To totally and completely oversimplify things, assume your brain consists of two primary parts: the Lower and the Higher Brain. 

Your habit is primarily associated with your Lower Brain. The Lower Brain is the slower, older, more habitual and pattern-sensitive part of the brain. The Lower Brain is non-thinking and it loves routine and consistency. When the Lower Brain picks up on a pattern, it fights to hold on to it.  The Lower Brain is responsible for producing urges that keep your habit alive.
 
The Higher Brain is the thinking, rational, decision making part of the brain (remember we’re generalizing for simplicity here, big time). It calls the shots. It also coordinates all of your voluntary muscle movements, so if the Higher Brain isn’t on board with some action or behavior, it ain’t happening. 
 
Do you see it? That means that your Lower Brain strives for routine and does what it can to keep your habit alive, but if you (via your Higher Brain) don’t make the decision to act on those urges, your habit discontinues. 
3. Your habit is alive only because you act on urges. Don’t act on urges.

The Lower Brain produces urges (also known as drives or cravings) for your habit. That’s the best way it knows the keep your habit alive. It might send out a strong urge for a drink, for example. That urge is uncomfortable, producing tension and emotion. You’d do pretty much anything to make it go away.

Most likely, the fastest, easiest way you know to make your urge go away is to obey the urge and drink. You make that decision, via your Higher Brain. The urge alone can’t possibly hurt you, but you don’t always realize that. When you do realize that, you suddenly have another choice.

4. Urges fade

Urges can feel horrible; no one is denying that. But they are also temporary. When you feel your urge and decide to not give into it, it begins to fade and retreat.

So there is another way to make an urge go away (other than obeying it): do nothing and let it fade on its own.

5. Willpower is the wrong tool

An urge is a thought and all thoughts fade in time.

Willpower is using new thought to overpower old thought. It’s when you meet an old thought (e.g., “I sure could go for a drink”) with a new thought, hoping to squash the old one (e.g., “No! You will not have a drink! You are stronger than that!”)

Using new thought to overpower old thought gets you in a thought tug-of-war, where old thoughts are showered with attention. Attention actually makes them grow, not weaken.

Rather than trying to think yourself out of your old thoughts, let those old thoughts fade. Don’t focus on them in order to overpower them—remove your focus and let them take care of themselves. It’s much easier that way.

6. Triggers and circumstances don’t matter.

You’ve probably considered the things that appear to trigger your habit.

There are a couple problems with focusing on external triggers. The first problem is that triggers are inconsistent. Looking for triggers can be like playing a game of whack-a-mole—just when you think you found one, another one pops up. You are more likely to fall into your habit when you’re stressed…except for that one time you did it feeling calm. Or it gets worse at night…except last week when it was horrible in the morning. Trying to predict when urges will strike based on external triggers leaves you feeling like a powerless victim of circumstance, not to mention completely confused.

The second issue is that triggers ultimately don’t matter. Maybe that should have been the first issue. What matters is not what creates urges; the origin of urges may always be somewhat of a mystery. All that matters is whether you obey your urges or not. The sole reason you have a habit is because you obeying urges.

7. It may take practice

It is truly incredible that the human brain can change.

And yet, brains are remarkably efficient and they don’t necessarily like to change. If your habit or addiction has been around for a while, chances are good that thoughts and urges about it won’t go away overnight.

They can, however, lose their perceived power overnight. It doesn’t even take that long, actually—it can happen in an instant. When you begin to see that urges are created by the Lower Brain but the Lower Brain is powerless to act on them…and when you begin to see that urges fade when you don’t obey them…your habit doesn’t look so powerful anymore.

8. The truth about setbacks

Setbacks feel like a big deal. But they aren’t.

Peek up at Big Idea #7, and consider the fact that your brain is very used to your habit or addiction. There will most likely be setbacks. They are meaningless in and of themselves.
Yes, meaningless. The only way a setback can hurt you or actually set you back, is if you decide it is meaningful and you use it as an excuse to spiral downward.

When you see that setbacks are simply part of the process, you’re not set back at all.

9. It is much simpler than you might think

As you’ve seen, the only reason your habit is alive today is because you obey the urges your Lower Brain produces. Once you see that you can experience an urge and you don’t have to give into it…that it will fade on its own if you do nothing…it is much easier to stop acting on your urges so much.

That’s all it ever takes to end any habit or addiction. Your habit is not “you” and it is not personal. It is simply your brain doing what it does.

You do not need to identify triggers or change anything about yourself. You don’t need to go to therapy or work out your deeper emotional issues. None of that is what keeps your habit alive.

All you ever have to do is see the simplicity in it all and let your Lower Brain urges fade without giving into them. The rest will be history.

10. Sustainable change

The best news about this approach is that the change is deep and sustainable.

When you see the truth about urges, nothing else matters. Anything can happen. You can have urges. You can even have strong urges. You will know what they are and what to do (i.e., nothing). They will fade and you’ll be back on the path, changing your brain for good.

 

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