Think of the first friend you made on the first day of school. It might be pre-school, high-school or medical school. It’s a memorable experience; the first time you feel connected to someone on a level that goes deeper than the surface. Today’s expert was my very first friend at Florida State. It was my first class at my new school (I was a transfer student) and the professor hadn’t shown up yet.
A girl who embodied what my Texas brain considered as the perfect Florida Girl (blonde, tan, friendly) and I struck up a conversation before class. We ended up having a lot in common and throughout the semester shared hairdressers’ phone numbers (I gave her mine, it didn’t work out); nursing broken hearts with pizza, pink champagne and musicals (my heart, the pizza was her idea) and building a lifelong friendship.
I feel so lucky to call this accomplished woman a friend. She has dedicated her life to understanding and helping people with addiction and I’ve asked her to help us understand a bit better about how addiction plays a role in the choices we make every day. Here’s Lindsey to tell you a little more about it herself!
Hi. I’m a therapist. I work with individuals who have substance use disorders, or as you may hear more frequently, addicts and alcoholics. I love what I do. I must mention that although I assess, diagnose and treat substance use disorders by day, I am taking off that hat right now. If you want to learn more about substance use disorders, I encourage you to visit the American Society of Addiction Medicine website.
Today the focus is on the general term you hear thrown around, “addicted”. We are going to look at what that word means and how it may be a barrier to you reaching your goals.
First, let’s define “addicted”. Oxford dictionary defines addicted as, “physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance, and unable to stop taking it without incurring adverse effects”. So, what does this mean? Let’s break it down using caffeine as an example.
Simply stated, being physically dependent on a substance means that you will experience physical withdrawal symptoms if you stop using the substance. If a person drinks several cups of coffee during the day and abruptly stops, this will most likely result in a headache. That’s a physical withdrawal symptom. They don’t last forever. If that person decides to stick with their decision to eliminate caffeine, the headaches will eventually go away.
Being mentally dependent means that you believe you need the substance to function in a desired way. How many times have you heard someone say a variation of, “Don’t even try talking to me before I’ve had my 2 cups of coffee in the morning!”. That person holds a belief that they are more irritable or not as focused before they have their morning dose of caffeine.
You may be thinking, “what’s the big deal about being addicted to caffeine?” The answer really depends on you. If you set a goal to stop drinking caffeine, I imagine it is important to you and being physically and mentally dependent on caffeine can derail your progress, if you let it.
What do I mean by saying, “if you let it?”. I am referring to your thoughts, more specifically, self-talk. Self-talk is automatic and it has quite the impact on whether or not we reach our goals. You have an external event, that event is followed by an interpretation of the event and self-talk, which then motivates a feeling and reaction.
Let’s put this in real life terms. It’s the day that you committed to eliminating caffeine from your diet. It’s mid-morning and you’re at work when a headache comes on (external event). You think about how good coffee tastes and say to yourself “I’ll never make it through this day with a headache like this!” (Interpretation of the event and self-talk). You feel irritated and drive to a nearby coffee shop to get a coffee (feeling and reaction).
The problem? You set a goal to eliminate caffeine but you didn’t follow through with your commitment. Your reaction may have alleviated your headache (physical dependence) and dissolved that irritation (mental dependence) but this is a short-term reward.
Speaking of rewards, let’s briefly talk about dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in your brain that is mainly responsible for feelings of pleasure. We feel pleasure in response to food, water, sex and nurturing. You also feel pleasure when you set a goal and follow through with it. That’s because as you make choices that work towards your goal, your dopamine increases. Do you feel more motivated when you can see progress towards your goal? Yes! That is dopamine at work! Pleasure is a reward that motivates you to continue the behavior.
We set goals for a reason. When we make choices that don’t align with our goals, we do that for a reason, too. Most of the time it is to feel better in the moment, as you saw outlined in our caffeine example. So, knowing what we do now about self-talk, how can we make choices that are aligned with our goals? Challenge that self-talk.
How we experience an event is greatly influenced by our self-talk. So, if we have negative or fearful self-talk, we can challenge that and it will impact our experience. Let’s take another look at the caffeine example.
It’s mid-morning and you’re at work when a headache comes on (external event). You think about how good coffee tastes and say to yourself “I’ll never make it through this day with a headache like this”. You recognize this negative self-talk and challenge it by saying to yourself, “This headache is temporary. I can do this” (Interpretation of the event and self-talk). You feel hopeful, take something for pain relief and drink a soothing cup of tea (feeling and reaction).
When you get through that headache, you feel pride that you did what you said you were going to do. Dopamine! The pleasure you experience is motivation for you to continue the behavior, which leads to achieving your goal. More Dopamine!
Remember: achieving your goals is a process, it’s not always easy and it takes time and effort. You are human and there will be times that you stumble or make choices that are not aligned with your goals but that is not an excuse for giving up. You set goals because they are important to you so giving up will only result in feelings of disappointment.
Don’t get in your own way. As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.”
Although we focused on caffeine in this example, the process discussed can be generalized to whatever it is you are struggling with. I want to make sure to mention that if you are concerned that you or someone you know has a problem with alcohol or illicit substances, ask for help. Although helpful to know, this post is not intended as treatment for a substance use disorder.
Lindsey E. Komara, LCSW