Why can’t I stop …?

We all have our own preferences, our likes and dislikes, our habits. But in some cases these can be extreme and get in the way of how we would really like to live our lives. These, in a word, are addictions.

Addictions are often seen as things we can’t stop doing because, by their very nature, they are – quite simply – addictive. Alcohol, tobacco, excessive food and recreational drugs are some well-known examples. But we can also become addicted to patterns of behaviour. These can be just as, and sometimes more, inhibiting or destructive to us – physically, psychologically or both. These too may also contain an element of physical addiction, such as the adrenaline rush that might become associated with a particular type of behaviour.

When people come for counselling about addictions they are understandably looking primarily for a way of giving up these behaviours. Focused approaches to changing behaviour, such as the ‘twelve step’ programme used by Alcoholics Anonymous, are one way of tackling the issue. Distraction techniques and self-calming strategies might be other approaches for different types of addictive behaviour.

Such approaches have undoubted value, but leave unanswered the question of what caused the addiction in the first place. Of course, this might simply have been an opportunity that presented itself, or pressure to imitate the behaviour of people within a peer group. Following this, the addictive nature of the substance or behaviour may itself have taken over.

But sometimes the addiction, once discovered, fills a place where something else is missing. In such cases the addiction can become a way of surviving and the thought of giving it up can feel threatening. It would leave the addict with nothing to sustain them. For example, people who habitually self-harm are unlikely to find it helpful to be told how destructive their behaviour is and that they should give it up. On the one hand this is stating the obvious, on the other it is telling the sufferer to let go of something that, at this point in their life, might be literally keeping them alive.

So in cases where there is no physical cause for the addiction the issue needs to be tackled at an emotional level as well. As MIND, the mental health charity, points out in its publication on eating problems*, this involves addressing the issues behind the behaviour as well as looking at changing the pattern of the behaviour itself. There is a range of possible underlying issues, such as anger, guilt, fear of failure, fear of intimacy or seeking protection. These are just some examples.

Dealing with addiction at an emotional level therefore involves discovering how the behaviour is related to patterns of thinking and feeling. This is also part of the work towards discovering and understanding the true person who is being masked by the behaviour that is burdening them.

*Understanding eating problems, MIND, 2011