Why addictive behavior is so hard to resist

Why are addictive behaviors, well, so hard to resist? We know they are bad for us. We know they won’t give us what we ultimately want. We’ve had times where we assure ourselves that we will not return to behaviors that have hurt us in the past…and hurt our families. We’re sure we would never find them appealing again.

And then we find ourselves returning to the habit again.

I’ve written more recent blog posts here and here on the topic of addictions (you can also use the search engine on this page to find others). You may also check out my “Slides, Articles, etc.” for links to talks on the cycle of addiction. Here, I want to help non-addicts take the mystery out of why addictions are so addicting.

It is quite simple, really. Addictions work–in the short run.§  Here’s out they work:

  1. I feel a particular “need” (craving, desire, want, …and I feel desperate about the “need”
  2. I solve the need with something that fills the need, at least temporarily.

Think about it. You wouldn’t drink alcohol for 2 days in order to get the benefit. You drink because in 20 minutes you will get the benefit. You wouldn’t view porn for a week in order to finally get some payoff. You view porn to get the pay off now.

Of course, when we solve with the addictive behavior, we rarely calculate the cost because the cost does not seem all that nearby. But the cost is there nonetheless. Cover-ups, deception, use leads to shame, self-hatred, distance from family, and ironically, increased desires or “need.”

On the other hand, “waiting” delays the use of the “substance.” When waiting includes using spiritual resources, friends, and other helpful mechanisms, it often encourages careful self-assessment. In time, the “need” may become more distant and the addict may come to see how unhelpful the “substance” really is. In Christian terms, this casting our burdens/desires on the Lord reminds us that we are not in the fight alone.

Why is it so hard to resist addictive behavior? Because they always give a pay off now. And Godly, wise, mature, delay or waiting tactics will never pay off in the immediate at the same rate of power. Praying IS powerful but God is not a vending machine and so praying rarely gives a person a cellular high.

If you are walking alongside an addict, remember that addictions make lots of sense and resisting almost always means increased pain, angst, and desire. So be sure to encourage them along the way. Telling them that their “I need” isn’t accurate may be true but probably won’t help them let go of desire. Rather, try hanging out with them in the “decision” spot pictured above. Sometimes when we delay deciding to use for a bit, we actually gain capacity to say no.



§By “work” I mean how we move from desire to action. I am not speaking here of the biological processes of addiction.


Filed under addiction, christian counseling

5 responses to “Why addictive behavior is so hard to resist

  1. Hi Phil,

    I saw this on Facebook and thought I’d comment. I’ve used your above description frequently over the years to explain why drugs are addictive; they have a rapid response. SSRIs are mind altering chemicals like alcohol or cocaine, but you don’t have the same immediacy of action on the brain. So their “addictive” potential is less because of the extended time it takes them to work.

    The other principle at work is the intermittent reinforcement principle, which makes it difficult to stop any reinforced behavior. Gambling is the classic addiction where this is active.

    With mind altering chemicals there is also the path of stimulation in the brain. The area of the brain known as the “pleasure pathway” is initially stimulated by the drug. It then travels to the prefrontal cortex, the decision making center (the CEO) of the brain. That would be the area of the brain that among other things exercises self-control over the desire to provide more stimulation to the pleasure pathway.

    Lastly, these principles will work to some extent with anyone, not just addicts. We all have the potential for addiction to something. What separates the individuals who pursue their drug of choice to the extreme of chemical dependency from others seems to be the as yet not specified neurotransmitter factor in addiction: either a genetic predisposition or a breakdown in neurotransmitter function because of repeated drug use.

  2. Scott Knapp

    One of more useful things my faculty at grad school that taught on addictions was that the “giving over” of one’s self is a natural part of worship; so in some part, addictive behaviors are a “giving over” to an illegitimate solution to a longing (though something totally natural for the “flesh”), and a form of “disordered worship.” One of the powerful components to overcoming an addiction is breaking the “idolatry” component and replacing it with an appropriate correlated form of godly worship. Brokenness and repentance are necessary, in my opinion, to make breaking an addictive “worship” pattern something more than merely “behavior modification”. The non-believer can acknowledge that he’s using addictive behavior to satisfy a longing, and successfully change his behaviors; only the Christian has the capacity to be broken of idolatry and genuinely becoming a worshiper, in the process of beating addictions.

  3. I am currently not walking alongside my adult addicted daughter. She is in court outpatient treatment and living in an adult foster home. She also has fetal alcohol syndrome and an attachment injury. The placement she is in treats her as if she were neurotypical. She doesn’t have the structure and supervision she needs to be successful. I am not around at her decision points. It is hard to look at the facts and see God’s power and feel any hope. I don’t ever expect a person whose brain was damaged by prenatal exposure to alcohol to choose delayed rather than immediate gratification. She needs structure and the presence of an external brain.

    And, I am withdrawing from her. Her life is painful and she would rather inflict that pain on others than feel it herself. She affects my mood. I am less affective parenting my other children. I have been around since she was 7. I have walked with her, learned about FAS, joined parenting groups, fought in IEP meetings, I visited her in jail, stood next to her as she faced felony drug charges… walking with her doesn’t make her better. It just makes me worse. Right now I think counselors, mental health workers, parole officers, etc. can help far more than I can.

  4. Sibusiso Mtshali

    That was brief tet very powerful. I can identify! HELPFUL, VERY HELPFUL!

  5. Naomi

    Do u think we can say that to some degree we are all addicts to sin? Choosing sin because it appears to be offering us something in the short term although we may know theoretically the long term cost. I describe myself as an anger addict. And I do use delaying my expressions of anger as a tactic.

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