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The Seductiveness of Bad Habits

Posted By: Marc F. Kern Ph.D.

By practicing unhealthy lifestyle management habits either you or someone you love has gotten into a difficult and unpleasant place in life.

'It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of darkness, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way--"

This quote begins Charles Dickens' famous novel, “A Tale of Two Cities.” However, it could also describe how you feel about your life or the life of someone important to you. These opposing feelings perfectly capture the emotions felt by so many people today.

It can be the best of times in so many ways but it all can be destroyed by powerful and all-consuming bad habits. It can be a wonderful time of light and hope, only to be blackened by the darkness of despair caused by overwhelming unhealthy behavior habits.

By practicing unhealthy lifestyle management habits either you or someone you love has gotten into a difficult and unpleasant place in life. 

This could center around one bad habit or a series of bad habits which include: smoking tobacco or marijuana, poor stress reduction skills, overeating, compulsive shopping, addictive depression, being a workaholic, constant self doubting, free-floating fear and anxiety, drinking too much on a regular basis, not following your doctor's advice, procrastination, misuse of prescription medication, lack of exercise, use of street drugs, poor work habits, hypochondria, poor study habits, consistent laziness, addiction to television, being a couch potato, gambling too much, sexual harassment, the compulsive use of pornography, and on and on.

There are two types of unhealthy habits: the "YES" bad habits and the "NOT" bad habits.

Both types are motivated by avoidance of uncomfortable feelings. However, type one is learned because of the feelings the habit or behavior itself offers. Type two evolves out of the feelings that an alternative non bad habit behavior offers.

Both types reflect the resistance to give up that, which is familiar, comfortable and predictable.

For example, type one--drugs, alcohol, gambling, procrastination, smoking, anger and the other addictions. Healthy habits are achieved by giving up the bad habit itself and replacing it with a number of healthy habits, that must eventually become more rewarding than the bad habit.

Type two -- not taking medication, not following doctor's advice, not
exercising, not eating the correct foods, not achieving, not studying, and poor work habits.

Healthy habits are achieved in two steps; first, by giving up that which has been in its place (e: sitting on the couch, not wanting to give up a lifestyle activity or inactivity, or not wanting to give up a taste, not wanting to give up a feeling, not wanting to give up a pleasure).

Secondly, replacing the old habits with a number of new habits that become the new norm which is more rewarding than the old unhealthy habits.

These are all silent killers and are our own personally constructed devils which plague us and cut out pieces of our lives day-by-day. They also shorten and diminish the enjoyment of our life spans.

All of this type of unhealthy behavior forces us to say "Why me?!" -- "How did this happen to me?" -- "I don't deserve this!"

Just as you read in my story at the beginning of this book, these unhealthy habits are a direct result of an intertwining of sociological, biological, and psychological events. It is both an adaptive and adoptive process.

It is important to look at this concept more closely. We didn't consciously choose to become addicted to a substance or a behavior. No one plans to become a prisoner of their own device in a cell of unhealthy behavior, but it happens every day.

It is a subtle and seductive process, which occurs over the course of time. What seems to happen is this: In the early stages of our unhealthy behavior, we are sociologically introduced to a substance or an activity that gives us immediate positive feelings while masking the realities and responsibilities of everyday life.

Through friends, acquaintances, advertising, or just plain accident, we are introduced to things like cigarettes, alcohol, street drugs, pornography, shopping, the advantages of being sick, certain types of food, or even the 'good old' work ethic.

Through the gradual use of these substances or behavior patterns our biological drives take over and we start to need or even crave this stimulus. Before we know it, the needs of our mind have taken control and through our psychological processes we can feel
stimulated and relaxed at the same time.

We can feel powerful and friendly, or closeted and protected from the world. It is the FEELING that leads to the ACTION. The substance or behavior that seems to work the best becomes our "Elixir" of choice, our "secret thing" that we do that we think no one else recognizes in us.

Over time there becomes a secret person within you, a 'you that nobody knows." Soon, 'our Elixir' --'our Secret' becomes a primary solution to many of our problems. Then suddenly, it becomes the dominant motivating force in our lives and transforms itself into more of a problem than the original problems that we were trying to escape.


It quite simply was an adaptive and adoptive process. First we adapted to the habit and then we adopted it as part of our personality and as part of our need structure.

An easily understood example of how an adaptation might take place can be found in the use of a common over-the-counter product.

Steven, a college freshman away from home for the first time, developed a severe cold just before a big exam. Anxious not to be slowed down, he went to a campus drug store and loaded up on non-prescription remedies, including nasal spray.

He felt proud of himself for taking care of the problem without needing to call home to Mom for help. After a few sprays he was breathing easily and feeling dramatically better.

In about a week his cold was gone, but he found himself still using the nose spray because he couldn't breathe comfortably without it.

What happened was a case of biological "rebound" -- a type of adaptation. It was as if Steven's body said: “Why should I produce the chemicals to keep my nose open when this spray works so well?"

By using the spray, he had changed his body's own chemical manufacturing plant. The more his nose closed, the more he sprayed, and on and on. In a short time, he had created his own biological addiction. Soon, he was using the spray ten to twelve times a day, constantly increasing the dosage to achieve the same effect that he originally received from a single spray.

But most importantly, if he didn't use the spray, he could not breathe comfortably at all, thereby, creating a greater problem than he had in the beginning.

In a similar process, many of us become addicted to sleeping medications, tranquilizers, and a multitude of over-the-counter drugs. Perhaps we initially suffer from insomnia for a valid reason. However, every time we take something, the part of our brain which produces sleep chemicals shuts down a bit, and then still more, until eventually our brain's chemical plant grinds to a slow halt.

By choosing a chemical solution to a simple problem, this subtle undermining of the body begins to create a growing physical need, and the beginnings of addiction take place. This is adaptation gone wrong, a self-created problem stemming from pure and simple innocence and naiveté.


From Chapter 1 of the book Take Control Now! by Marc F. Kern, Ph.D.

~ ~ ~

Psychologist Marc F. Kern, Ph.D. has over 30 years of clinical psychotherapy experience helping people overcome addiction and self-defeating habits, and acquire the insights and skills to live happier lives.

He is the founder and director of Addiction Alternatives, a division of Life Management Skills, Inc., wrote the practical self-help book "Take Control Now!" and has appeared on more than 80 television and radio shows including 20/20 and Larry King Live.

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