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  • Writer's pictureRyan Allen

Addiction prevention and habit-forming

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of modernity is the incredible level of addiction that accompanies the constant stimulation we experience. Both medically diagnosed and undiagnosed, it is hard to deny that addiction is pervasive in contemporary society. Without a doubt, we all fall somewhere on the spectrum of addiction to something. In other words, we suffer on some level from tolerance, desensitization, and dependence on whatever substance, feeling, action, or thing it may be.


While I am certainly not offering medical advice for confronting addiction (please promptly seek medical advice and treatment from your doctor if you believe you are suffering from any form of addiction), I do have some simple strategies to share that I’ve personally found to be effective for managing my own habits, cravings, and “addictions.” I hope this post is helpful for a broad range of people, as I feel my two main weaknesses are fairly common: social media and caloric intake. That being said, I think these general principles can be applicable to a wide variety of addictions.


First, the most powerful form of prevention is removing the temptation entirely. I wrote a post on this a few months back, and I personally think my environment is the most important factor for me in practicing discipline with my regular habits. If you want to avoid eating junk food, make sure you do not have some always waiting for you in the pantry, ready to be grabbed the instant you have the craving. If you do not want to get sidetracked from studying by checking your phone, keep it in the other room on silent. Remove the temptation entirely, or put as big of a barrier as you can to your access. At least for me, sheer willpower can only get me so far if the temptation is readily available. By ridding my environment of potential harms, I ensure that willpower is not even a factor.


Another clever strategy would be to alter some metric that can affect your quantity of consumption or engagement with the habit. For most habits, the clearest example of this would be time restriction. I commute to work on public transit each day, and I have recently set a rule for myself that all of my daily allocated social media time must be limited to that commute time. When getting ready in the morning, at work, or winding down in the evening, I have realized that there is simply no reason for me to be checking my phone for additional updates. Those things can virtually always wait until the next morning or late afternoon check on the commute.


Perhaps the best example of the efficacy of time restriction is with food, though. A lot of us, myself included, have a complicated relationship with food. For me, it’s rarely been a problem of the quality of food that I eat; I do not frequently fall for unhealthy junk. The issue is typically quantity, and that honestly comes down to boredom more than anything else. If I have nothing else to do, I will eventually go look for a snack of some sort. That is where the food environment again comes in, but also time restriction. I enjoy fasting or time-restricted eating (TRE) largely because it alleviates the perpetual stream of thought regarding my next meal. If I set my eating window each day to a certain period of time, I hardly ever think about food or cooking the rest of the day, and the temptation dwindles. Should the thought of eating even arise, it immediately gets shut down by the mere fact that I’ve set this time as my fasting window.


By limiting the time in which I can consume food, I am also limiting the quantity I can consume. One can only eat so much, so fast. So, without having to practice willpower throughout the day to keep my caloric intake in check, I just make it difficult to consume many calories by limiting the time when I can do so. In fact, a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that there was no significant additional benefit of time restriction over caloric restriction in terms of body fat, weight, and metabolic risk factor reduction. This would suggest that the benefits of a time-restricted nutritional regimen are largely conferred via the caloric restriction that comes along for the ride. I will continue to practice TRE almost purely for this reason. While there could still be some other benefit to shorter (sub-24-hour) “fasts,” I find that it makes it far easier to restrict calories when I just restrict the window in which I can eat.


Another key principle for mitigating bad habits is substitution of the substance, behavior, etc. for a less harmful one. This can be especially helpful if you find yourself already on the path to addiction or suffering from addiction. For me, my bad habits frequently are borne out of any boredom or free time I find, so whenever I sense myself having nothing to do for a short period of time, I just try to give myself something else to fill the gap in my schedule. It doesn’t always have to be productive work, but I channel my time and effort away from unnecessary indulgence into meaningful activities that I know will help me. With my time always occupied by something important or beneficial to me, I leave minimal time for bad choices I would later regret.


In the case of substance addiction, this substitution is quite literal. I have been fortunate enough to engage in volunteer work with addiction medicine studies at Highland Hospital in Oakland, CA, where a variety of approaches are used to safely phase patients out of their addictions. A key method of treatment is substitution of the abused substance for one that may be similar in effect, but generally less harmful. For example, for patients suffering from opioid use disorder (OUD), doctors can help to transition them to alternative narcotics such as buprenorphine or methadone as a step away from addiction. For people suffering from nicotine addiction, a common problem just discussed on the blog, alternatives containing nicotine alone (without the harmful compounds of smoking or vaping) such as patches or gum may be helpful.


Lastly, it is crucial to ensure that one phases out of addiction gradually. The concept of withdrawal is a complicated one neurologically, and for certain substances, it is clear clinically that it can be quite dangerous. Withdrawal syndrome (WS) can present in a variety of ways with physiological symptoms following sudden abandonment of substance use. Broadly speaking, the body seeks to maintain homeostasis. When the brain becomes accustomed to exposure to a substance over the period of addiction, it will adjust to accommodate the substance’s effect. When the substance and its effect are suddenly lost, the homeostatic mechanisms for accommodating its presence are still in place, which can cause problems.


It rarely helps to give up an addiction cold-turkey, whether with a substance or a habit. It is for this reason that people tend to fail with sudden, strict diets, often rebounding even harder into a bad diet when they inevitably give up their unsustainable practice. Be sure to go easy on yourself and slowly decrease your level of exposure to the thing until you are at a place where you feel little to no dependence on it. Your physical health, and your peace of mind, will thank you.


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