what we all want the sober train to feel like?

this behaviour change I am now making in spending less time online is making me look yet again at aspects of how we change our habits. it is a salutary reminder for me of what the early days of sobriety were like. which is useful both in giving me understanding of others’ tribulations, and in a reminder of why I never want to have to Go Back.

the title of this blog post is a phrase of Hal Elrond’s, about the stages of habit change. Hal’s style does not necessarily click with me but I think this is a very neat summation of my experience of stopping drinking. those early days were definitely almost unbearable. and a huge part of what got me through them was others’ assurances that it would get easier, that uncomfortable was just around the corner.

and I have definitely found that the discomfort gets less and less, and more and more intermittent, until at two years it has become a very occasional gnat of irritation that can be readily swatted away. I had one such occasion a couple of days ago, when after a particularly rubbish day at work I found myself glancing at my husband’s wine glass at supper. nowadays I have constructed a sufficiently large swatter and support crew that such annoyances can be swiftly dealt with 😉

I’ve been reading and thinking about what keeps me stuck in the first two stages of the process. where any type of behaviour is concerned, there are many factors at play. something I find fascinating is the role that brain chemistry plays in addiction, and how we can recognise it and take it into account.

I’ve been reading Kelly McGonigal’s ‘The Willpower Instinct’ which I would highly recommend. one thing she is very good on is explaining the role of dopamine in our brains. she stresses that dopamine’s primary function is to make us pursue happiness, not to make us happy:

‘To motivate you to pursue the object of our craving, the reward system actually has two weapons: a carrot and a stick. The first weapon is, of course, the promise of reward. Dopamine-releasing neurons create this feeling by talking to the areas of your brain that anticipate pleasure and plan action. When these areas are bathed in dopamine, the result is desire – the carrot that makes the horse run forward. But the reward system has a second weapon that functions more like the proverbial stick. When your reward centre releases dopamine, it also sends a message to the brain’s stress centre. In this area of the brain, dopamine releases the release of stress hormones. The result: you feel anxious as you anticipate your object of desire. The need to get what you want starts to feel like a life-or-death emergency, a matter of survival. When we find ourselves in a similar state, we attribute the pleasure to whatever triggered the response, and the stress to not yet having it. We fail to recognise that the object of our desire is causing both the anticipated pleasure and stress.’

that last line really hit home for me, as for the umpteenth time today I resist the temptation to check my mobile. when I am hungry, I need food. when I am thirsty, I need water. but just because I feel I need to drink alcohol, or eat chocolate, or update my FB status DOES NOT MEAN THAT I DO, it just means that my dopamine system is egging me on to do so in the pursuit of pleasure.

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this has its attractions – although that shade of lipstick would do absolutely nothing for me.

of course our brain chemistry is only part of the picture – our genius little monkey minds have evolved to retain memories and beliefs that sculpt our day to day experiences, and how we react to the world around us. but can they be relied upon? to be discussed in part 2 of this post….

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