Q&A: Am I Addicted?


The Question:

I’ve read your book twice and I like a lot of it but stuck on the subject of addiction. I want to ask you if this is going to work for me if I’m not addicted? I can go a bit crazy with cakes and pastries sometimes, but then I really do forget all about them for weeks. Surely if someone is addicted, like smokers, they are physically hooked so there’s a need to do it every day?

My Answer:

Some addictions are driven primarily by physical dependence, such as some medications for sleeping or painkillers. The body becomes accustomed to the drug, and after some time it can be very difficult to readjust physically, and that’s why they can be called addictions.

Most, if not all, addictions have an element of physical dependence, but the addictive behaviours I’m most familiar with (nicotine and starchy carbohydrates) are mainly driven by something else: Pavlovian conditioning of the reward system. There is, of course, a biochemical aspect to this, but this is not the same as physical dependence. The far more important factor is the brain’s reward system, and the crucial elements with this are pleasure, satisfaction and context.

Most people who overeat can see that they can control their eating in certain circumstances but not in others. For some, they’re fine at home but tend to overeat in the context of social situations. For others it’s the reverse, where their home is the context for endless snacking.

Pavlovian conditioning sets you up to overeat in certain circumstances; it’s the context, not the biochemistry, that can drive the behaviour. The circumstance you are in creates an expectation of eating, based on what you’ve done in that context in the past. The expectation is of a pleasurable reward. And, it can be changed.

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  1. April

    “I’ve no way of knowing what causes your expectation of, as you say, “going a bit crazy with cakes and pastries”. For many people, it can be weight loss. You notice, perhaps, that your clothes fit better and your tummy seems flatter. This can lead to the expectation of eating something ‘naughty’ and ‘forbidden’ – because that’s exactly what you’ve done in the past.”

    I am very interested in hearing more on this subject. It is something I can relate to.

    • April, there will be a 1-hour podcast interview with me posted online at the end of this month. I’ll include the link in my next blog mail out. I’m talking about this subject, so you’ll find it’s worth watching.

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