Dealing with addictions and compulsions

2757491724_30d653bd26_oI have a confession. I am a teensy bit addicted to social media. Facebook, Twitter… On a bad day, I can check my notifications on Facebook several times in five minutes.

This gets in the way of my work, but it also sucks time from me and leaves me feeling jittery. It gets worse when I’m trying to avoid something, like writing my novel.

All of us have various addictions and compulsions – some more powerful than others, and with various side–effects and consequences. We might have a colleague who isn’t worth speaking to until after their first cup of coffee, or a friend who’s hopelessly addicted to a soap opera. Some of us might feel our emotional wellbeing is dependent on a daily walk on the hills.

In this article I want to talk about the compulsions that are problematic for you – they might be affecting your health or getting in the way of time you spend with your family or friends.

The Buddhist approach to addiction is that we become dependent on certain habits or substances when we are trying to avoid something that we don’t like. We have a stressful day so we have a glass of wine when we get in, just as a treat and to help us relax, but as time goes on we become more and more likely to deal with our stress in this way. Maybe one glass isn’t enough any more, or we feel we need a glass of wine whether we’ve had a stressful day or not.

We can’t avoid the things we don’t like, but we can start to face them square on without running away. If we feel stressful after work, we might sit quietly for ten minutes and let our muscles slowly relax, or talk things over with our partner. If we’re avoiding dealing with a nasty pile of paperwork, we might start to tackle it bit by bit rather than reaching for the chocolate.

Since the New Year I’ve been keeping my compulsion in check by banning myself from the internet before 12 midday. It has an amazing effect on the shape of my mornings, and leaves me free to write and to get things done with no distractions. By the time I do check my emails and Facebook notifications it’s nearly time for lunch and so I get through them as quickly as I can! I’ve been noticing the urge to check email arising, and sitting with this impulse until it fades away. Mostly it fades pretty quickly. It’s still early days, but I’m feeling a new freedom – would you like to feel this freedom too? Here are my tips for dealing with your own addiction:

  1. Acknowledge that you have a problem. Most of us manage to deny how addicted we are to the things we’re the most addicted to, as we don’t want to give them up. Take a long objective look at the behaviour you feel worried about, ask your friends (friends who don’t have the same addiction!) for their opinion, and try to notice when you’re going into denial. In the Twelve Step programmes, the first step is to acknowledge that we are no longer in control of our addiction but that it is in control of us. This is a big step.
  2. Become aware of any patterns. Get curious about your compulsion. How do you feel just before you eat the second slice of cheesecake? Are you squashing down some anger? What happens when you don’t eat it for five minutes – can you feel any tension in your body? How does it change over time? Why is your TV–watching addiction worse during the holidays? What is your family history around addiction? What are you trying to avoid? You might want to make a few notes every day and see if anything emerges.
  3. Make a plan. How will you tackle your addiction? Will you go ‘cold turkey’ or cut back gradually? What new (good) habits could you substitute for the old ones? What incentives will you give yourself, e.g. will you spend the money you would have spent on smoking on a weekend away, or can you write a list of benefits of breaking your addiction and go back to it when you waver? What date will you begin? What problems might you encounter and how could you reduce their impact? Who will you tell?
  4. Get professional help. Addictions can be incredibly difficult to break, especially when they have a long history, when substances are involved or when you’ve been using them to avoid some psychological pain. There are a number of places where you can find specialised help – speak to you G.P., look online, find a local Twelve Step programme, book an appointment with a therapist, get a book out of the library or ask a friend to support you.
  5. Don’t give up. If you fall off the wagon, try to understand what went wrong and then repeat the first four steps. Get some extra support if you can. It can take several attempts to change our deeply ingrained habits, and so taking one step backwards before you take two steps forwards might be a part of the process.

Good luck and wish me luck too – if you see me on Facebook before 12 midday, tell me off!