What Most People Get Wrong About Addiction

Hey there. I’m Phil and I want to have a heart-to-heart with you, one addict to another.

Oh, what’s that? You don’t consider yourself an addict?

Well, you’re wrong… but I know why you think that. The term addiction is usually reserved for people with severe substance abuse. You know, things like drinking every day, smoking four packs of cigarettes a day, or shooting up heroin in an abandoned building.

While these examples definitely fall under the category of addiction, I’d like to talk to you about addictive behavior that all of us — including you — engage in almost every single day.

If you give me a few minutes of your time, I’ll explain:

  1. Which of your daily habits are actually addictions
  2. How to replace them with something better

Caveat: While everybody can benefit from the lessons in this article, addiction is a classified brain disorder. If you’re dealing with serious addiction or substance abuse, you should consult a hotline or a mental health professional.

HOW ADDICTION WORKS

Before you can recognize addictive behaviors in your own life, you first need to know how addiction actually works.

So let’s take a common example — smoking.

As of writing this, it has been exactly 762 1Updated: May 2019 days since I’ve smoked my last cigarette. Most people who know me would be shocked by this. Shocked, I tell you! Not because of how long it’s been, but because they’d never think I was a smoker in the first place.

You see, I hate smoking. Like, really hate it. I’m the guy who’ll roll his eyes if you light up and gives you a dirty look if you blow smoke in my direction. Due to my allergies, I have a bit more trouble breathing, so the smoke even annoys me more than it does most people.

man smoking and drinking in a bar
You like it so much, blow that shit in your own face.

Back in school, while all the “cool kids” were stealing cigarettes and trying them out, I’ve always steered clear of the stuff. “Fuck them cancer sticks” — I thought.

That is, until I was about 20. I was drunk with a big crowd and, for some reason, I told my friend: “Fuck it, roll me one”. From there on out, I would smoke socially on occasion. This, in itself, doesn’t seem like a big deal, especially when compared to regular, hardcore smokers. But the effects were, essentially, the same. On average, it takes you about a full year to get your body to the same stage as before you started smoking.

Even though I only smoked on the weekends, I was still experiencing all the downsides.

I’ve tried quitting multiple times but, since I would light up exclusively when I was not in my best state of mind (drunk, partying, etc), my determination would often go out the window. On top of that, people would always pressure me into having “just one” or smoking “just tonight”. Since I wasn’t that clear on my conviction in the first place, I’d often seem hesitant, so I’d eventually give in. After quitting, I’d be clean for a few months but would then convince myself to have “just one”. You know, I’d smoke one to treat myself for not smoking.

What I realized with my addiction was that it wasn’t physical. I never felt I “needed” to smoke all week. It was only when I was drunk and partying that the thought entered my mind.

And this is what makes all the difference — addiction is psychological.

Everybody is an addict

Everybody is addicted to something. Yes, that most definitely includes you too. It may not be smoking, but I’m positive that you have a substance in your life that makes you say: “I need this.”

Or you may say: “Well, I don’t necessarily need this, but I really enjoy it. I can stop this any time… but, you know, I won’t stop it right now. Or tomorrow. Or next month. WHY ARE YOU JUDGING ME?!?!?!”

When this reasoning is applied to, let’s say, someone using heroin, you’d think they are an addict. I mean, it’s obvious, right? They are just deluding themselves. But what if you applied this to drinking your morning coffee, that you need to wake up every morning? Or candy you eat in front of the TV because you have a “sweet tooth”?

That’s different, right? It’s not that you need it, but you really enjoy it. You can stop at any time… but, you know, you won’t stop it right now. Or tomorrow. Or next month. WHY ARE YOU JUDGING ME?!?!?!”

Be honest, do you ever instinctively reach for:

  • Something to wake yourself up when you’re sleepy.
  • Something to treat yourself with because it’s tasty.
  • Something to ease your mind or forget your problems.
  • Something that will make others like you.
  • Something that will relax you when you’re stressed.

Addictive substances are all around us. Their appeal is completely understandable as they seem to “fix” your shortcomings, even if just temporarily. If you couldn’t fall asleep last night, but have to wake up at 6 am to go to work, it’s not unusual to think: “Let me grab a cup of coffee to wake myself up”. However, over time, you experience this on a daily basis and there’s no way you can get through your day without that cup of coffee.

I know this from personal experience as well. I’d wake up sluggish, cram pounds of coffee in me all day to stay awake, then come home and stare at the ceiling unable to fall asleep — because of the coffee.

The more you abuse a substance, the more you become immune to it, so the more you need to consume to get that “high”. So while a non-coffee drinker will get energized from a simple espresso, a regular coffee drinker needs six triple-espressos mixed with shotgun shells to feel the “kick”.

Dependence on any substance will, after a while, make it seem like you “can’t live without it”. Or at least, that you don’t want to.

Coffee wakes you up. Alcohol makes you fun. Cocaine makes you confident. Weed makes you relaxed. Molly makes you happy. If you always use a substance to relax / be confident / chill / think / socialize / go to sleep / wake up / whatever, your mind and body will become used to it and they won’t be able to properly function without it.

In my book Develop a Mind of Steel, I talk about the dangers of false confidence. Many people try to become confident through drinking or taking drugs but, once the effects wear off, they’re still stuck with the same problems. The real problems — insecurity, shyness, low self-esteem — never go away. The drugs and alcohol simply make you forget about them for a while.

Let’s take another common example — sugar.

Yes, that sugar. The one that’s in your coffee, cakes, and probably most things you consume. That same sugar has been shown to have a similar effect on your brain as cocaine. 2There’s been some dispute about this similarity because some scientists claim that sugar doesn’t develop the same physiological dependence as cocaine. But both sides agree that the psychological addiction part is true. You know that feeling when you have a strong craving for something sweet? Yup, that’s addiction.

cake cookie sprinkled sugar
Might as well be cocaine.

You have trained your brain to receive a stimulant from sugar and will instinctively think that you need it… well, maybe you don’t need it but you really really want it and you can stop at any time, but you won’t and WHY ARE YOU JUDGING ME?!?!?!

By reading this, you will probably realize: “Holy shit, I do act that way. That’s not very healthy. I just need to cut out that substance and I’ll be good!” But that’s not really true. The substance itself, no matter how addictive in itself, is not the real issue.

You need to ask yourself: why am I reaching for this? What problem am I trying to solve by using this?

Addiction is a symptom, not the cause

Addiction starts as a “solution” to a problem in your life.

You don’t get enough sleep, so you rely on coffee. You’re often anxious, so you smoke weed. You’re insecure in groups, so you drink or take party drugs to “break out of your shell“.

Substance abuse of any kind is a way of avoiding dealing with the underlying problem. When Cracked interviewed a former heroin addict about misconnections people have about addiction, here’s how he described it:

People act like addictive drugs are just needles full of “addiction gremlins”. But I didn’t use heroin because of heroin. I used it because I had serious problems in my life that I wasn’t addressing. The “gremlins” were inside me all along.

— Ed (pseudonym), Cracked

You see, when talking about addiction, you are actually battling two different issues. One is substance addiction (psychological) and substance dependence (physical).

Addiction (psychological dependence) is a compulsion that you “need this” in order to function properly. Dependence (physical dependence) refers to the physical symptoms you experience after abusing a substance for a long time. When you quit, you go through physical withdrawal symptoms. Note that not all substances have high levels of physical dependence.

That’s why quitting can be so hard. Removing the substance doesn’t solve the underlying problems that drove you to addiction in the first place. And that can be a very scary thing. Addiction gremlins are gone, but the real gremlins… they’re still inside you.

HOW TO KICK ADDICTION IN THE BALLS

Whenever someone pressured me to “smoke just one” I didn’t have a physical need to smoke. I was just drunk and thought it would be cool or thought it would enhance my drunkness which would, in turn, make me more relaxed and social.

I had trouble relaxing, but instead of focusing on the actual problem, I just masked it with nicotine. It’s the same as having to get drunk to become confident enough to talk to people. Or people who drink to forget how shitty they feel for a while. Your addiction isn’t tied to the actual substance, it is simply a way of avoiding dealing with the root problem.

When you suddenly quit, you’ll feel an actual physical craving and the detoxication period totally sucks. But it is only temporary. Physical symptoms go away.

Step 1: Recognize The Problems

First and foremost, ask yourself this: Why do I want to quit?

How does your addiction affect your life negatively? Does it affect your health? Does it limit your focus or motivation? Does it alienate you from your friends? Does it make it impossible to function without it? List everything.

Step 2: Define Your Quitting Statement

Sum all of the problems you listed in one clear statement.

It needs to be bold and powerful. It needs to remind you of what’s more important than the temporary pleasures you’ll experience. You can focus on the benefits you’ll gain or the downsides you want to get rid of.

It won’t be easy, but it’s a mental game. Since any addiction is mostly a psychological thing, just use stronger psychology to prevent it.

How does one fight a psychological foe? With psychology, of course.

Mark Manson

For example, when I finally decided to quit smoking, I made a decision in my mind that I am not a smoker.

I loathe all the negative side-effects that come with smoking and they tamper with my mood levels, motivation, productivity, and health. In other words, that small stick full of poison indirectly has full control over most areas of my life.

MY QUITTING STATEMENT: Smoking just one cigarette will destroy all the progress you’ve made and it is going to take you years to get to the same level again.

I still get the urge to smoke and people still try to pressure me into smoking. Even after I tell them I’ve been clean for so long and that I’m trying hard not to smoke, they say something like: “Congratulations man! So come one, smoke one just tonight to celebrate.”

man smoking and drinking in a bar
Seriously, fuck that guy.

Being firm and standing your ground is not only the best, but the only course of action in situations like these.3Charlie from Charisma on Command explains this point well in regards to not drinking.

Despite many temptations, I don’t budge and, every time I don’t, my determination only grows stronger. However, don’t unnecessarily test yourself. Especially at the beginning, try to avoid people and places that trigger your substance abuse.

Yes, it’s hard at times. But it’s definitely worth it.

Keep yourself busy. The more free time you have on your hands, the more you will be inclined to give into your addictions. Identify triggers and situations that trigger you, then remove yourself from those surroundings. After the physical symptoms wear off and you get on a roll by saying “no” to temptation, it gets much easier.

Every journey starts with a single step. After that, it’s just a matter of not stopping.

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Hey, I'm Phil Janecic.

I’m a guy who’s been in your shoes and knows exactly what you’re going through. I started Mind of Steel in 2014 to help people change their lives by building mental strength.

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