©Arlene R. Taylor, PhD     www.ArleneTaylor.org

Addictive behaviors are habits—brain software programs—
that have run away with themselves.
—Arlene R. Taylor

xCJ slumped in an overstuffed chair, his wife BJ (they were into acronyms) rigid on a stool. Both faces were wreathed in scowls.

“CJ has a problem,” BJ said. “It is ruining our lives.”

“BJ enables my so-called problem,” CJ snapped.

“In a couple of sentences, CJ, tell me the issue,” I said.

“We’ve been cooped up at home and food has escalated from an avocation to a vocation,” said CJ.

“Some of our friends in a similar situation started to eat more healthfully at home—no fast food and all—and they have lost weight,” said BJ. “Not CJ. He has gained over 50 pounds!”

“Hey, I just want to feel better,” CJ sputtered.

“Be honest, CJ. It’s SUGAR!” BJ shook her head. “You are addicted to sugar!”

Some sugary foods,” he admitted.

Some? CJ eats a pint of ice cream almost every evening!” BJ exclaimed.

“Like I said, I just want to feel better.”

“I’m sure you do, CJ,” I interjected. “That is natural. Your brain wants you to feel better so it will feel better—and sooner rather than later, faster rather than slower. The problem comes when you develop strategies to feel better quickly instead of creating and maintaining a longevity lifestyle. Quick feel-better strategies can escalate into addictive behaviors as the brain learns to go for the fastest dopamine thrill. Problem is that each thrill lasts only a short time.”

CJ gazed out through the window.

“What’s this about an enabling issue, BJ?” I asked.

BJ sighed, dramatically. “What am I supposed to do? CJ snacks continually and complains bitterly if I do not keep the house stocked with all his favorites. Frankly, it is easier to keep them stocked than listen to him whine. Then he blames me! It’s getting very old!”

“Whining is just anger squeezing out through a very small opening,” I explained. “Blaming is an attempt to displace part of one’s discomfort onto someone else. CJ is a grown man. You can love him and let him stock his own unhealthy favorites. You can eat healthfully and stop nagging him. You are not his mother. Enabling behaviors allow you to feel sorry for yourself, which helps no one.”

“Ouch,” said BJ. “You certainly nailed that one.”

“Maybe it is in my genes,” said CJ. “Yeah, that’s it. Genes! Addictions run through our family system like water through the Grand Canyon.”

“Genetic can play a part, but estimates are that 70 percent of how well and how long you live is related to personal lifestyle choices. If your brain believes there is no problem with your lifestyle, it will continue to prompt you to do whatever makes you feel better quickly, giving little if any thought to how it will impact your future health and longevity. Scans of a brain high on refined sugar resemble those of a brain high on cocaine.”

“Are you joking?” asked CJ.

I shook my head.

“Are there other foods besides sugar that are addictive?” asked BJ.

I nodded my head.

“The University of Michigan reported on study using the Yale Food Addiction Scale,” I explained. “Ranked in order of most problematic in terms of addictive-like behavior, the top 12 foods were these:

  1. Pizza
  2. Chocolate
  3. Chips
  4. Cookies
  5. Ice cream
  6. French fries
  7. Cheeseburgers
  8. Cake
  9. Sodas
  10. Dairy cheese
  11. Bacon
  12. Chicken

“Lord have mercy!” CJ groaned. “I love all of those. Eat most of ‘em every day!”

BJ perked up. “So, what can we do?”

“A start is to rid your house of products made with refined sugar, products you eat to feel better quickly,” I suggested. “Ice cream, for example.” This suggestion was followed by several groans coming from CJ’s direction.

“B-b-b-but...” CJ finally stuttered. “I mean, how is it that sugar make me feel so much better?”

“Sugar is an addictive-like substance that triggers the Brain Reward System, or BRS, to release dopamine, the feel-better chemical,” I replied.

“Where is this BRS?” asked CJ, laughing rather than groaning. “I assume it is in the brain somewhere.”

brain layersI explained the three functional brain layers.

  • “The cerebrum (3rd brain layer) houses conscious thought, with an estimated 80 percent devoted to subconscious functions. It contains the function of willpower, designed to help you learn a new replacement behavior and maintain it. Remember, willpower was not designed to stop an undesirable behavior, however. It was designed to help you learn and maintain a new and more desirable replacement behavior.
  • “The mammalian (2nd brain layer) is subconscious and contains functions related to the Brain Reward System or BRS. In fact, relapses into past addictive behaviors tend to occur from this part of the brain. It remembers what you did “last time” to feel better and prompts you to repeat tht behavior.
  • “The reptilian (1st brain layer) is also subconscious and contains stress responses and repetitive routines that often kick in automatically unless you make a different choice. It primarily understands present tense: right here, right now.”

“Mammalian or 2nd brain layer,” said CJ, nodding. “Subconscious. Got it.”

“When the brain perceives that you want to feel better, it tends to look for something to trigger the release of dopamine—50 percent of which is found in your brain and the rest in your gut. The next time you want to feel better, the BRS pushes you to do whatever released dopamine the last time. Before long, you can develop a habit that moves on to an addictive behavior. It is not that it is impossible to control an addictive behavior, but eventually the behavior that triggers the BRS to release dopamine becomes so strong that most people just give up trying. Even the anticipation of doing something that makes your brain feel better can trigger the release of dopamine.”

“Oh...my...goodness. I finally get it,” exclaimed CJ. “I feel bad. My BRS pushes me to do what made me feel better last time. I do the behavior; I feel better. Next time I feel bad, the cycle repeats. Wow! Ok, I will start by getting refined sugar products out of the house. How long before I’m done screaming at the walls?”

“That depends on you and your brain: on your mindset and your self-talk. Your brain can only do what it thinks it can do. It is your job to tell it what it can do,” I explained. You get your mindset in place, then use the new recommended self-talk style. Stop telling your brain what you do not want to do and tell it only what you are doing as if it is a done deal. Use your name and short, present-tense phrases.”

“I need an example,” said CJ.

“First, select a healthier replacement behavior. Second, when you crave sugar, tell your brain:

  • CJ, you are eating an apple, or
  • CJ, you are drinking a big glass of water with a squirt of lime, or
  • CJ, you are eating some hummus with celery sticks, or
  • CJ, you are eating a dozen unsalted walnut halves.

“Many brains can resolve a sugar addiction in three or four days once the individual changes their mindset and self-talk and completely stops eating all refined sugar. Just remember that a good dose of sugar or honey will put you right back on the same treadmill.”

CJ maneuvered himself out of the chair, no longer scowling. “Three or four days, is it? I bet my brain can beat that. Count me in, and I will be spending time on your website!”

“Count me in for that, too,” said BJ, “and count me out of enabling.”

They both laughed. CJ and BJ were on their way.