Caught: How We Can Get Addicted to Almost Anything (and How Mindfulness Can Help)

The brain is an amazing, simplifying mechanism. It loves to automate as much as possible; otherwise, how would we make it through our lives (or even one day)?

The more automatic our brain can make our life, the more energy it can conserve for the hard work of meeting new experiences and figuring out how to make them more automatic.

So, how does the brain do this in real-time?

It’s a process called Reward-Based Learning. In other words, something happens, the brain decides on a strategy to deal with it, and there is a result. It might be good or it might be bad. If it’s good, the brain says, “Oh, that feels good. I better do that again.” So the next time that situation occurs, the brain directs us to behave in the same way in the hope that we will get the same result. Again, if the result is something we like, we call it a reward. The brain then says, “Oh goodie! I don’t have to worry about that anymore; I’ll just rinse and repeat. Problem solved; move on.”

Here is an example: A friend says something to you that hurts your feelings. You don’t want to start a fight, so instead of saying something back, you stuff a cookie in your mouth. Momentarily, you forget about your hurt feelings to savor the sweetness of the cookie. Or perhaps you jump on the internet to see who has liked your last post on Instagram. Either way, you get a hit of pleasure, and as far as your brain is concerned, the problem is solved and you can move on. Guess what? The next time your feelings are hurt, or you feel sad or angry, your brain says,” I know what to do – I’ll eat a cookie or look at my feed. Problem solved!” Or is it really?

The path for this reward-based learning is simple: Trigger, behavior, reward, and your brain doesn’t have to waste any more valuable time or energy on that. Yay!  

But is the problem really solved? Or have you created a new problem?

You probably won’t stop to look at it until one day you realize you’ve gained 10 pounds, or you just lost 2 hours on the internet; or even worse, lost your job.

That is usually when we start to apply that tried-and-true tool in our toolbox: Willpower. We just won’t eat any more cookies or consume any more news online. And when our willpower eventually stops working, we wonder what happened.

Unfortunately, most of us don’t examine the root cause of the problem. We’ve connected eating that cookie or surfing the web with soothing our emotional ills. We can actually go through a whole lifetime of yo-yo dieting or yo-yo temporary internet starvation.

So, what to do? Enter: Mindfulness, the antidote to this craziness.

Mindfulness lets us begin to get unstuck by examining our assumptions. It allows us to take a good, hard look at what we thought was a reward, and see if it really is a reward.

Once we start to see the truth of the situation and allow ourselves to marinate in the negative consequences, our brain says, “Oh, maybe I should reevaluate.” Our brain wants us to be happy, and the more we can open its eyes to what is really happening, the more likely it is to find better alternatives.  

This is what neuroscientist Judson Brewer calls, “the change that happens through embodied awareness.” We don’t have to work at it, rev up our willpower, or go cold turkey. We just need to see the truth of our situation and let the brain look for healthier alternatives.

As Judson Brewer, PhD says, “The core psychological processes that drive habits are well understood, but only recently has research shown how targeted mindfulness training can help individuals overcome specific bad habits and unwanted behaviors.” 

This is the real beginning of wholesome change. We see how much of our behavior is habitual. We notice how our ever-changing environment throws more and more shiny new things in our path, posing as solutions for problems that can’t be solved by any of them. Think of smartphones, romance, social media, and sugar.  

Is it time to see if mindfulness can help you make the changes you seek?

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