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Changing Our Ways: Overcoming Bad Habits or Addictions

By Brenda Riojas, I Start Wondering Columnist

No matter our age or our position in life, in some ways we are always in a state of beginning.

Whether it’s beginning a project or a new phase of life, every day gives us an opportunity to begin again as we strive to become better versions of ourselves.

As I try to be more intentional with how I spend my time, I recognize there are unhealthy addictions and bad habits—like compulsive shopping and a tendency to scroll mindlessly on social media--that get in my way of living my most authentic life. I suspect I am not alone.

Understanding the Big “D”

Dr. Anna Lembke, the professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, agrees. “We’re seeing a huge explosion in the numbers of people struggling with minor addictions,” she said.

Much of the issue is tied to dopamine. This neurotransmitter, which is known as a “feel good” chemical in the brain, triggers feelings of pleasure, reward, and motivation. In an effort to prolong these feelings, we tend to continue doing the activity that releases dopamine. However, Lembke explains that a dopamine overload can tip the pleasure and pain balance in our brains.

in an interview for The Guardian, Lembke, who authored “Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence,” said, “The question of how to moderate is becoming an increasingly important one in modern-day life, because of the sheer ubiquity of high-dopamine goods, making us all more vulnerable to compulsive overconsumption, even when not meeting clinical criteria for addiction.”

The Journey Forward

While I am trying to find ways to overcome my bad habits and addictions, every step forward serves as encouragement. But sometimes I stumble, and I feel like I’m in a board game in which I take three steps back, undermining any progress made.

Yet the struggle is also part of our journey in life. We all have areas of our lives we want to improve. It’s important to accept where we are and not resort to shaming ourselves for our weaknesses. Instead, we should embrace the fact that we are works in progress.

What personally gives me hope – knowing I can try again. In the book, “The Name of God is Mercy,” Pope Francis writes, “The most important thing in the life of every man and every woman is not that they should never fall along the way, the important thing is always to get back up.” Hence, my favorite Latin phrase, nunc coepi (now I begin). The Venerable Bruno Lanteri, a 19th-century priest from Italy, advised, “If I should fall even a thousand times a day, a thousand times, with peaceful repentance, I will say immediately, Nunc Coepi [Now I begin].”

Lanteri also points out that we can learn from our mistakes, noting, “If I fail often, I will come to know my weakness ever more clearly, and, with peace of heart, I will promise to grow.”

The First Step

It’s important to clearly recognize our bad habits and areas of our lives where we believe we fall short. It’s the first step.

Then we take the next step—and the one after that. “Healthy practices happen day by day,” Lembke writes, adding that taking a pause from the behavior is critical. “Recovery begins with abstinence. Abstinence resets the brain’s reward pathway and with it our capacity to take joy in simpler pleasures.”

Yet breaking the addiction—and dopamine’s hold over our brain—can take a bit more effort. To that effect, Lembke has developed a framework to address the problem of compulsive overconsumption, using the acronym DOPAMINE:

  • Data

  • Objectives

  • Problems

  • Abstinence

  • Mindfulness

  • Insight

  • Next steps

  • Experiment

I’ve begun using Lembke’s framework, combined with aspects of my faith that offer additional support. I’ve found that the liturgical seasons of my Catholic faith offer opportunities to become more intentional in conquering my weaknesses. The practice of fasting and abstaining from something during Lent serves as an opportunity for self-discipline with the hope that by the end of the 40 days, we may be transformed in some way.

Ten years ago, I started doing a daily fast twice a week. This discipline serves as a reset button for times I have overindulged. During Lent, I also set time limits for using social media with the idea that I would only go online while riding my stationary bike. Confession: I reverted to old habits while on a long car ride and some idle moments. I will try again. For me, it is also important to take it to prayer asking the Lord to guide me and give me strength, courage, and wisdom to persevere.

Additionally, to help me focus on what needs to be done, I find it helpful to prepare a monthly intentions tracker. For example, I have four manuscripts waiting to pass the finish line. To do this, I need to stop procrastinating and limit my time with social media. Sometimes I create a 12-week tracker and checklists to keep me on track, which removes my tendency to put my time elsewhere. I also benefit from surrounding myself with people who will encourage me as I move forward. These support structures—focusing on the specificity of each task, embracing the accountability created with a supportive colleague, and checking off each item from the list—motivate me to continue.

Recognizing there are no shortcuts in this tug of war, I will continue to experiment with what works best for me. I invite you to do the same. There are different approaches to winning this tug-of-war with the dopamine in our brain, and naturally, we each must find what works best for our specific situation.

It’s worth repeating: we are works in progress. Every moment counts. Taking time to work through addictions and bad habits creates balance in our lives and ultimately gives us more time for what we value.

What are some of your winning approaches to overcoming bad habits and addictions?

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