Keep it in mind


The role of these chemicals is to reinforce natural, life-enhancing behaviours, so that activities such as having sex and eating food feel rewarding. An addiction is like a parasite that exploits this natural and beneficial reward system. It does this by rewarding us for behaviours such as smoking and overeating (especially sugar and processed wheat) that are actually bad for us.

The popular view of addiction is that when someone tries to quit, their brain, which has become accustomed to these chemicals, misses its fix. Your brain has had its regular dose of some version of the chemistry described above, possibly for many years. When you take control of the addiction, that chemistry stops happening. The brain chemistry gets upset, and you experience the misery, the agony and the general mayhem of physical withdrawal as a direct result. You crave, you rage, you grieve and your life seems to fall apart.

There’s a problem with this, though, and the problem is that it doesn’t take into account the impact of the ways we think, the attitudes and beliefs we hold in our mind. This impact is huge, and to get some idea of how huge it is, let’s take a look at some research.



A group of smokers who had volunteered to take part in a study were asked not to smoke for 12 hours before coming into the research centre where this study was being conducted. Each one was interviewed and asked many questions about how they were feeling and how much they wanted to smoke a cigarette.

They had already been identified as being ‘highly dependent smokers’ so, as you can imagine, there was no doubt they really did want to smoke. After 12 hours of not smoking at all, they were beginning to experience symptoms of withdrawal such as irritability, restlessness, anxiety and strong cravings. After the interview, they smoked a cigarette and then described how much better they felt, and how satisfying that cigarette was for them.

So at the end of all this there was a great deal written down about the thoughts and feelings of the smokers before and after smoking a cigarette.

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  1. Janet

    Thanks Gillian – your article is excellent, as always – well researched and interestingly written.

  2. Maggi

    Just finished reading the book “Addiction: A Disorder of Choice”, written about data on illegal drug use that shows that it’s the mental side of things that works to make nearly all illegal drug users quit by age 30 and in a way that doesn’t support the disease model of addiction. Of course, possibly going to jail and having the drug sources be a lot harder to find than the nearest supermarket or gas station helps. But the main influence was seeing that the substance use wasn’t nearly as fun as it used to be and it was getting in the way of other pursuits even more important than getting that high. Cravings did NOT go away with such insights. They just weren’t perceived as being strong enough to be the deciding factor anymore. Author Gene M. Heyman also went on to explain how it usually takes some intellectual effort to combat instincts that have been usurped by modern substances or activities that humans didn’t have excessive access to before. This is likely because it can also take awhile for the benefits of the new regime to compete with the in-the-moment advantages of the old. I suspect with such easy access to high-reward food, the timeline for reducing the attachment to food might be even longer.

    BTW, one of the factors that seemed to affect whether users could kick the drug on their own, and it definitely applied in only a minority of the cases, was comorbid psychiatric disorders. The ability to think clearly is a huge advantage. I hope to think that enough of the masses have the right ability to do it, once they really get the options. What are they? Stay stuck, get more stuck, get less stuck, get unstuck, all with their own difficulties and consequences. I think that with food, getting less stuck is the most viable option for most. That’s one of the reasons I love the title of your book. Thin might not be possible but eating less very likely is!

    • Thank you so much for this, Maggi. I’ve ordered the book and look forward to reading. As the author is a Lecturer in Psychology at Harvard Medical School I’m hoping for some strong research and evidence behind this idea – what a great start to the year for me.

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