Understanding Addiction

When I say the word “addiction”, what images or ideas come into your head?

What do you think of when you hear that word?

I’m asking because I believe that understanding the mechanics and nature of addiction is key in quitting the smoking habit.

Many people I see talk about having ‘addictive personalities’.

Some see their addiction to smoking as a major controlling force in their life against which they have no or little power.

They know this, they tell me, because they have tried to quit smoking many times in the past and the smoking habit has won.

In the story of David and Goliath, the smoking habit would be their Goliath – an immense force looming above them.

The odds, they feel, are indisputably stacked against them.

But what if I told you that addiction can be a good thing?

What if, instead of engaging in battle with it, you chose to understand it?

Without addiction the human race would not be the advanced species it is.

The mechanics of addiction drive us to do and learn and advance.

And when we do that, we thrive.

When we are keen to do or learn something, our brain releases dopamine. This chemical locks our attention and focus on the matter in hand. And when we have done what it is we were focused on doing, our brain releases endorphins, the ‘feel good’ chemicals which give us feelings of satisfaction.

It’s the equivalent of rewarding a child with candy-floss, say.

Of course, as well as being there to help us expand our knowledge and learn new skills, dopamine and endorphins exist to ensure our survival by driving our behaviour to eat, drink, have sex and sleep – without which the human race would simply not survive.

But when we have mastered that thing we set out to master – we no longer get the same warm, fuzzy feelings as we did before. In a sense, we have built up a ‘tolerance’ and need to do and achieve more to get the same buzz. This is why a child who achieves their badge for swimming a width, will want to go on to achieve the next badge for swimming a length. Or why a serious mountaineer or professional sports person will want to climb ever more challenging mountains or seek out more demanding competitions and goals.

It is also why someone who is addicted to drugs or alcohol or cigarettes needs ever-increasing amounts to feel the same effects.

So it is this natural, in-built reward mechanism that underpins addiction. But let’s be clear; addiction has to be practised. To become addicted to anything, you need to repeat it and practise it, just like learning a new skill, so that eventually it feels natural.

That very first puff on a cigarette is never a pleasant experience. You know this because the body tries to reject the smoke by coughing and producing feelings of nausea. The body was never designed to inhale and process smoke. You are not a chimney.

Often people tell me that they’ve given up for a few weeks and have then gone back because of the physical addiction. Yet, all trace of nicotine have left the body within 72 hours of smoking your last cigarette.

Rather than it being a physical lure back, then, it is more often an ‘associative’ one. Smokers often smoke in conjunction with something else and it is through repetition that it comes to feel as though the two things naturally go together. This is why some smokers say they must have a cigarette with their coffee, or drink. Non-smokers make no such association.

Associative triggers like this are key in maintaining the smoking habit. If you accept that all traces of addictive substances are gone from your system within 72 hours of smoking your last cigarette, you can start to see how the key to giving up the smokes lies in breaking the unnatural associations that you have created simply through practise and repetition.

And when you realise that, that immense force looming above you starts to appear altogether less menacing and more manageable.

Understanding the nature of addiction enables us to develop a strategy for addressing it. The physical addiction can be broken by abstaining from smoking for 72 hours. It is the emotional attachment that the smoker has, which needs to be addressed and hypnotherapy can help break these unnatural associations and build better, healthier routines.

All David had was a sling and a small stone, but he understood how to bring Goliath down.

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