Addiction “Just Stop It” Is It This Simple?
Many had enjoyed the humor of Bob Newhart when he played the part of a therapist in a comedy sketch several years ago. His brief miracle “cure” was only to tell his clients who struggled with any self-inhibiting or destructive behavior to “stop it!” (see below this paragraph) The sketch was clearly intended as a mockery of such an overly simplistic approach to human behavioral change (and Newhart’s wit makes it a gem), but is there any merit to that approach in real life?
Taper Off or Stop
Many view recovery from addiction and some other mental health concerns as simply stopping unwanted behavior or thoughts “cold turkey.” In working with many individuals, families, and their support networks in addiction recovery, we see this question inevitably rise as we try to find strategies that work specifically for them. Does a person recover from sexual addiction (and other compulsive behavior) simply need to decide one day to “stop” the behavior? Or is it a matter of “tapering off” gradually?
I’ve found that the answer to both of these questions is the same – yes! But perhaps not in the context, many would expect.
Addiction is something that we learn – or rather that the instinctual part of our brain “learns” that it “needs” to survive. Our brain seeks to fulfill its “needs” by demanding a particular behavior, substance, or experience again and again. When addiction – particularly sexual addiction – is entrenched in our coping strategies, it feels like its part of us. And it is part of us in the sense that it is leveraging our instincts. We wouldn’t want to eliminate our instincts, would we? Of course not. They are critical. Recovery means learning to manage our response to instinctual drives.
Gordon Bruin, our friend, and mentor explained how addiction is a learned behavior below:
A recovering person does need to make the decision to make a change to overcome addiction. That decision is the first step in recovery, and it usually comes more than once. But he or she doesn’t learn to manage addictive impulses and behavior simply by making the decision to change. It takes some time to learn recovery, just as it does to learn addiction.
There are some important considerations to keep in mind. Learning behavioral change means gradual change. Some call it tapering down. The instinctual brain usually brings a lot of self-justification along the way (e.g., “I’ve been excellent for a week, so I deserve it”). It feels frustrating to have ups and downs. Learning behavioral change may seem like a delay in recovery, but it reinforces change over time.
On the other hand, deciding one day that one can simply never again engage in addictive behavior – the “cold-turkey” approach – is overwhelming and almost inevitably leads to relapse with compounded shame. That’s not unlike attempting to stop having a sexual drive completely. When we can’t fathom the idea of NEVER acting out again, it becomes a willpower issue, which is never enough.
Thus, the “cold turkey” question leads to a hybrid answer – we make a decision to change, and we manage the sexual drive (or another impulse) EACH DAY, one day at a time. Hopefully, this discussion about the “cold turkey” mentality can be valuable food for thought for recovering individuals and their support network.