Habits—we all have them. American author Elbert Hubbard said: “Habit is the great economizer of energy.” He was exactly right. Habits are our friends—when they’re good ones. Habits are routines that help us perform multiple tasks with minimal mental effort. They help us repeat safe and effective behaviors, and build consistency and security into our lives. The brain is constantly learning new ways to increase the efficiency with which we perceive and respond to our world. Just as commercial airplanes can fly a perfect course on automatic pilot, freeing the captain to watch for danger and monitor the controls, so habits—the brain’s automatic pilot—enable us to perform safe, effective routines that help us cope with daily life. At the same time, they free up mental resources for making new decisions in meeting the necessary challenges and changes of an uncertain world.
When Good Goes Bad
Bad habits can sometimes become addictions. Addiction is viewed in many and varied ways. In the past, the term addiction was used only to refer to the compulsive need for, and use of, a habit-forming substance (such as heroin, nicotine, or alcohol) and characterized by drug tolerance and the withdrawal symptoms that a user experienced when not using the drug. The addiction picture is bigger than drugs. Howard Shaffer, who heads the Division of Addictions at Harvard University, asserts that drug use “is not a necessary and sufficient cause of addiction. It is improper to consider drugs as the necessary precondition for addiction.”1 “A lot of addiction is the result of experience: repetitive, high-emotion, high-frequency experience.” 2 Stanford University psychologist Brian Knutson agrees: “It stands to reason if you can derange these circuits with pharmacology (drugs), you can do it with natural rewards too.” 3 “What is coming up fast as being the central core issue … is continued engagement in self-destructive behavior despite adverse consequences,” says Steven Grant of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. 4 With this expanded definition, addictions can take the form of not only drugs but food, gambling, shopping, overwork, sex, television, or any other activity that becomes excessive, destructive, or compulsive. This does not mean that all addictions have the same results.
Substance addictions involve the introduction of a chemical agent that has varied consequences. Behavioral addictions may involve activities that are in and of themselves normal and even necessary, such as eating or using the Internet. In some cases, total abstinence is impossible, but vigilance in remodeling the thinking and behavior concerning the activity is essential. When an addiction develops, what is happening in the brain? For one thing, the pleasure circuits in the brain become “hijacked” by the addictive substance or behavior and stop functioning in harmonious concert with other brain circuits. Judgment and reason take a back seat to habits that have taken over the pleasure and motivational centers of the brain making them repeatedly produce intense cravings. This is followed by a reward “cascade” of pleasure neurotransmitters (chemicals that transmit information from one brain cell to another), including dopamine, serotonin, enkephalin, and GABA, 5 when that craving is satisfied. These repeated quick fixes for pleasure paralyze the regulatory mechanisms of the brain that put the brakes on pleasure neurotransmitters with their messages that say, “Stop! I am satisfied!”
Causes and Cures
Addiction of any kind has many possible roots, including emotional, spiritual, physical, environmental, and genetic. Finding lasting freedom requires positive change in every one of these areas. Addictions can creep into the lives of the vulnerable or unwary in many forms, crossing all racial, class, social, educational, and economic boundaries with cold impartiality. Winning any war depends on knowing the strength of the enemy and also on having a powerful cache of mighty weapons to win a decided victory. These weapons include creating an environment, both internal and external, creating a lifestyle, creating a community, and creating a spiritual connection. Used together, they play a powerful role in overcoming liabilities, amending weaknesses, building strength, coping with stress, and experiencing permanent recovery from addiction. Any time the addictive agency is persistently used as a substitute to avoid dealing with life, addiction may loom dangerously near.
Choice, Not Fate
However, there is a significant distinction between risk and predetermined fate. Many individuals who are at a high risk for addiction overcome the odds and become stellar citizens, while others who have many of life’s advantages nonetheless become helpless victims of addictions. Studies may reveal certain links, and understanding those links is important for intervention and therapy, but they do not predict success for failure. Although it is important to understand where we have come from, it is equally important to know that we do not have to remain stuck there; we can go on.
Brain structure is not predetermined and fixed, even when early experience has not been good. “Experiences, thoughts, actions, and emotions actually change the structure of our brains. By viewing the brain as a muscle that can be weakened or strengthened, we can exercise our ability to determine who we become. Indeed, once we understand how the brain develops, we can train our brains for health, vibrancy, and longevity.” 6 Recent research reveals that the brain is capable of almost innumerable forms of learning and memory, and potentially as many ways for neurons to change their function. Neuroscientist Mary Kennedy describes the brain’s wonderful range of activity and subtlety of function as being based on “highly tunable” properties of each neuron during development and into adulthood, which ultimately influence behavior. 7 Neuroscientist John Ratey from Harvard University makes the point that the environment and our choices have a profound effect on genetic tendencies for conditions we have long considered “fixed” such as obesity, homosexuality, and even personal traits such as leadership or optimism. He writes: “We humans are not prisoners of our genes or our environment. We have free will. Genes are overruled every time an angry man restrains his temper, a fat man diets, and an alcoholic refuses to take a drink. It may indeed be harder for people with certain genes or surroundings, but harder is a long way from predetermination. 8 Some make dramatic mid-life career changes, master new skills, and adopt healthful lifestyles, even after years of wrong habits. Others make positive changes in the way they relate to people after years of dysfunctional relationships.They learn to enjoy new activities, hobbies, foods, and friends. All of this human dynamism involves change—genetic, neuronal, and hormonal—and results in the ongoing formation of new brain circuits! “Practice makes perfect” because the brain is wonderfully plastic, or changeable, throughout life. The processes of thinking, learning, and memory are dynamic and ongoing.
Choice by Choice
We have to pay attention in order to make those choices that change us! “Attention is a mental state that allows us, moment by moment, to choose and sculpt how our ever-changing minds will work, to choose who we will be the next moment in a very real sense. These choices are left embossed in physical form on our material selves.” 9 People with addictions feel they have lost the power to choose what they rationally know is right. This is because negative changes have taken place in the brain that involve multiple brain circuits, especially circuits involving reward, conditioning, and self-control. 10 But once that power is reestablished, amazing positive changes can take place. Additionally, the brain’s genes, synapses, and structure are influenced when we make positive choices, tackle mental challenges, adopt better attitudes, exercise judiciously, and eat and live more healthfully. Determined effort enhances the brain’s intellectual capacity, reasoning power, emotional strength, and the ability to respond to multiple challenges. Learning how to cultivate these resources is of great benefit to those who have habits that hurt. Knowing that the brain can recover from addictions and learn new habits is exciting. As Dr. Schwartz puts it, “With the ability to shape our brains comes the power to shape our destiny.” 11 Repetition is the creator of habits. The more times a thought or action is repeated, the more cemented it is in the brain. But you can change even when habits have been long entrenched in your lifestyle. What’s the piece that is missing?
The Key Ingredient for Healing
One of the hardest struggles of the human heart is to realize the need for a power outside oneself. It is natural to be independent, to try to solve all of life’s perplexities without help. But God, who created us, knows we need His help, power, and guidance in order to successfully manage ourselves and our life situation. Often the single biggest issue for someone struggling to break free from an addiction is trust. It is also hard to relinquish the excessive need to control people or circumstances in an attempt to factor out potential pain. But if the need to control is not replaced with trust, a person will eventually replace one addiction with another. We need to let God have control in our lives. The Bible teaches us that submitting to God’s control will equip us to face life’s challenges, give us a new way of looking at life, give us reason to hope and trust, guide us in the right way, and at last grant us eternal life. The counsel is inviting: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make straight your paths.” 12
Our attitude is probably the most powerful indicator of success or failure in the pursuit of change. Ratey states it this way, “It has become obvious that we can actually change our brains. By altering the external or the internal environment of our bodies, we can take better advantage of our strengths and amend our weaknesses. The possibilities for change are bounded only by our imagination, our willingness to assess our brains accurately through self-reflection, and our commitment to do some hard work. One necessary precursor to change, though, is often a change in attitude.” 13 Adopting healthful lifestyle habits and positive habits of thinking require planning and prioritizing each day. But positive choices powerfully sculpt the brain and promote long-term recovery from addictions. Getting and staying free from addictions and bad habits requires applying biblical keys to life that impact our thinking, our behavior, and our relationships. Our most important choice is to cultivate a strong connection with our Savior, the Author of freedom and liberty.
- The most important unresolved issue in the addictions: conceptual chaos. Shaffer HJ. Substance Use Misuse 1997:32(11) 1573
- Behavioral addictions: do they exist? Holden C. Science for People 2001 Nov:294(5544)981
- Reward deficiency syndrome: a biogenetic model for the diagnosis and treatment of impulsive, addictive, and compulsive behaviors. Blum K, et al. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 2000 Nov:32(Suppl: i-iv)1-112
- Ratey J. User’s Guide to the Brain (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2002) p. 17
- Sticking Together. Kennedy MB. Proc Natl Acad Sci 2000:21(97)11135-6
- Schwartz J. The Mind and the Brain (New York, NY: Harper Collins, 2002) p.18 (The author is quoting William James)
- The addicted human brain viewed in the light of imaging studies: brain circuits and treatment strategies. Volkow N, et al. Neuropharmacology 2004:47:3-13
- Ibid., jacket cover
- Proverbs 3:5-6. (NKJV)
- Ratey J. User’s Guide to the Brain (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 2002)p. 356