Habits, Compulsions and Addictions

By | 02/11/2015

There is still a long way to go before it can be said that we truly understand how the human psyche works. But we do know that a significant part of our actions are on autopilot, that is to say, we often act automatically and react to certain situations without needing to think what we’ll do.

When driving a car, we follow the same steps, which don’t demand thought, automatically; it is also our reaction to the unexpected. Often, we only take notice of something after we happened, as if our autopilot has been turned off by our shock. It’s no different from how we act when we brush our teeth, shower, towel off, and follow all other habitual activities of our day.

Habits are acquired behaviors that become repetitive and fixed; they become entrenched in our memory, creating a solid path in our nervous system, in a way that makes us follow patterns in our lives.

Once settled, habits – which are conditioned reflexes established by repetition – are very hard to undo. It’s very easy to create an association, or condition ourselves to some kind of behavior, but it is very hard to dissociate, that is, to unravel a strongly established connection in the human brain.

If one day we got used to eating fast, it is very hard to learn how to eat slower, and properly chew. If we ever get used to crossing our legs when we sit, the movement comes automatically even when we know we shouldn’t because of our posture. Getting rid of conditioning requires a lot of effort, of constant and continued attention to the behavior one desires to change.

Compulsions are frequently inconvenient or even harmful habits, such as nail biting, self-harming or obsessive-compulsive disorders (OCD). An aspect that is not easy to detect characterizes them, I believe: anxiety reduction. If someone developed a nail-biting compulsion, they’ll do it when they are tense and it will improve their emotional state. Basically, compulsions bring what Schopenhauer called a “negative pleasure,” felt when an initial discomfort is relieved by performing the compulsive act; it’s like the pleasure we feel when we’re cold and put on a sweater, or thirsty, and get a drink.

The repetitive rituals of people with OCD relieve them of anxiety; trichotillomania, the compulsion to pull out hair, only keeps happening because it is calming. The same goes for compulsive overeating; it can make people feel less vulnerable. The compulsions that affect people with anorexia, on the other hand, seem to be related, originally, with the pleasure of perceiving oneself as thin, but it devolves into something more complex; the act of eating breaks a ritual that lessens some tensions and fuels vanity.

Eating disorders in general are more complicated, because they not only relieve the painful feeling of vulnerability, they also bring  “positive pleasure,” that is, a pleasant feeling that is not connected to a previous discomfort. After all, chocolate tastes delicious even you were already feeling great! This kind of compulsion is closer to what is called addiction. Addiction is a neural connection even stronger than a habit, because it’s also bound to the pathways of chemical dependence.

Needless to say, it is very hard to get rid of addiction, since it does bring a lot of pleasure on a first phase. Its harmful effects only appear after a while. Of course, not every vice exists because of chemical dependence; some are just, say, shopaholics or workaholics. But they all have a root in positive pleasure, that initial feeling of well-being. Caution is required; it’s easy to get into these paths, but to get out of them, more often than not, backbreaking strength is required!

Tradução: Amanda Morris