My grandfather and uncle died of alcoholism. I’m predisposed to addiction.
As I write this, I’m in the midst of my fourth 5-day water-only fast. When I began fasting, my friend Michelle warned me, “You be careful. You be safe!” knowing that my addictive tendencies might lead to extremes.
Given a predisposition and love of intensity, it has taken me decades to develop an appreciation of the fine line between habit and addiction.
What Is Addiction?
The DSM-5 defines addiction as a chronic, relapsing disorder characterized by seeking and use despite adverse consequences. In other words, compulsive engagement in naturally rewarding behavior.
What’s complicated, though, is that what we call addictions aren’t necessarily problematic in moderation. There aren’t a lot of downsides to having two drinks a week. Short of sexual addiction, sex is great!
But to get the same positive experience and dopamine reward over time, we have to increase the stimulus. We need more alcohol, more drugs, more sex, or more exercise to get the same – or even a lesser – outcome.
There is nothing wrong with chasing naturally rewarding behavior. It is just important to choose the right ones!
A Little Escapism
Some years ago, I spent a night at Lake Titicaca in Peru. The locals were celebrating their annual harvest, which entailed getting black-out drunk for days – and nights – on end.
Growing up around alcoholism, I’d always judgmentally deemed alcohol as problematic. What I learned in Peru is that the locals were practicing a form of once-a-year escapism in the form of celebration and a significant cultural ritual.
We all need escapism, whether that is a die-hard devotion to a sports team, binge-watching Netflix, reading science fiction, or my own study of movement.
Altered States of Consciousness
We all enjoy altered states of consciousness.
Few things feel better than getting out of my 39 degree cold plunge after 3 minutes. As I’ve written about in Habits for Fasting, I enjoy the altered state that comes with fasting. Whether through a physical accomplishment or an emotional victory, winning feels good. (And can be made even better by Deliberate Celebration.)
It has taken me years to realize that the pursuit of an altered state – whether a slight alcohol buzz or exercise endorphins – isn’t harmful. And to identify two characteristics which help me steer clear of habits that could too easily spiral out of control.
How I Differentiate Between Habits & Addictions
The keys I’ve found to differentiate positive habits from addiction are in these two questions:
- Is it difficult to do?
- How do you feel afterwards?
Is it difficult to do? – The habits that I let myself pursue today are hard to do. Exercising is never easy. Cold plunging can be miserable. Fasting is the single hardest discipline I’ve ever attempted.
By contrast, drinking alcohol is easy. There’s very little barrier to entry, and the second drink is even easier than the first!
When something is difficult to do during the practice of that habit, you are much less likely (to be able to) abuse it.
How do you feel afterwards? – The second criteria is how you feel afterwards. Alcohol feels great immediately, but you can be sluggish or hungover the next day. Cold plunging is uncomfortable, but the endorphin high afterwards is exhilarating.
Fasting is the most difficult delayed gratification I know. But even more than the altered state of consciousness that comes during a long fast, I like how I feel afterwards. With exercise, cold plunge, and many other pursuits, the reward comes after the effort.
This newsletter aims to be a tactical guide to good habits. As someone who has long been afraid of my own predisposition towards addiction, I’ve found it useful to recognize that when a habit is difficult to do and leaves me feeling good long after, I’m probably on a good path.
Until next time,
P.S. I’m not a medical doctor and nothing here should be construed as medical advice! If you are struggling with addiction, please consult with a professional.