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Untying the Gordian Knot of Addiction

“Why can’t I just stop?!” Understanding the brain’s own learning capacities can help us answer this maddening question that comes up with any addiction. It may also help us find a way out.
Photo by Greg Willson on Unsplash

We’ve all been there: You sit down, pull out your phone “for just a minute,” and then immediately open your usual, go-to app. Before you know it, you’re down the rabbit hole, scrolling, surfing, or streaming now for who knows how long.

Addiction is a complex Gordian knot. In Greek mythology, King Gordius tied a knot so impossible to unravel that only a particular individual destined to be a future ruler could succeed. Addiction can likewise seem daunting and at times unsolvable. Yet there is a way to find success. Like unraveling any tangled cord, there is another kind of mental labor that involves working the end back to the beginning of the problem, gradually nudging the knot to fully unravel.  

Whether the choices we make are ultimately helpful or harmful, our learning brain works to our advantage by recording associations, sequences, and consequences based on our own repeated decisions. Our brain is designed to learn on our behalf so that we can execute behavior more efficiently and eliminate the tediousness of having to think through every step in something we repeatedly do. For example, an experienced driver no longer has to think about which pedal to press to go forward or stop, and a track runner can focus intently on his or her direction and speed without having to deliberately decide which foot to move in front of the other. This kind of behavioral learning frees up our conscious thought, allowing us to run, dance, type, play the piano, and so much more without having to deliberately think it through every step of the way. 

Learning from our choices is what the brain does best—a feat modern computing is only beginning to master. Among other things, this means that the behavioral, emotional, and psychological shape of the connections (synapses) in our learning brain will ultimately bend, form, and be tempered to our will. Properly directed, we are able to build good habits and develop proactive muscle and behavioral memory—which includes emotion linkages. For example, our brain learns to cue up specific thoughts, feelings, and behavior when we place our hands on the keyboard; and once a behavior sequence is activated, the brain learns how to ‘take it from here,’ executing highly habituated (overlearned) choreographies. Misdirected, however, this same learning brain becomes a terrible master, forging pathways that can lead to powerlessness—which is a defining characteristic of addiction. 

Learning alone, of course, is not addiction. But learning does powerfully habituate behavior. Learning produces no euphoric high or anesthetizing low that enslaves the body and mind. And learning does not bring tolerance, dependency, or withdrawal. However, learning does tie the strong knots of habit, and habituation weakens and increasingly “disappears” choice points and thereby contributes to powerlessness. Learning also conditions our coping patterns and chains up trigger–response linkages. As self-defeating, maladaptive responses are conditioned as our dominant response, learning ultimately contributes to psychological dependency.

In this way, unchecked patterns can become entrenched and derail us from our intended purpose and goals. Whether compulsive patterns surround food, social media, exercise, gaming, gambling, pornography, substance abuse, etc., when an overlearned sequence is triggered, one can regrettably realize that the brain drove on autopilot to an unwanted “historical” destination, no matter what one’s original intended destination was.  

Understanding Powerlessness

When considering addiction without appreciating this and other dimensions of powerlessness, people often say, “Just quit.” “Just say ‘No!’” “Just stop!” By understanding the mechanism of powerlessness embedded in everyday behavioral learning—through which opportunities for choice are eclipsed by habituation—these same people can be helped to see the obstacles that stand in the way and must be overcome in order to “just stop.”

Understanding the brain’s learning processes is one essential key to disabling powerlessness and revitalizing agency. Though difficult and painstaking, poor learning can in time be “reverse-engineered.” So, let’s turn now to the brain’s three types of learning records—associations, sequences, and consequences—and how they can be reverse-engineered to overcome self-defeating habits and help disentangle us from addiction. We’ll address them using three metaphors—the dutiful butler, the master choreographer, and the high-pressure salesperson.

Associations: Our Dutiful Butler 

Like a “dutiful butler,” our learning brain masters behavior in part through learned associations (classical conditioning—remember Pavlov’s dogs?). Associations bind or link together stimulus and response, forming our behavioral “triggers.” Informed by repetition (e.g., every time I have down time I take out my phone and …) the brain takes our “cue” (down time) and links our response to it (phone). Stimuli can be anything in the environment or inside us. 

Following our initial conscious lead, the brain matches context to behavior and first threads, then knots, then firmly ties the two together. The brain dutifully intends that we “behave for the occasion.”

Consider common examples: Every time Jane gets into bed, she reaches for her phone. Every Friday night after work, Ben meets his friends at the bar. When John needs to de-stress, he opens his laptop and ends up looking at porn. Committed to assisting, the brain as the dutiful butler is quick to let us know what to do next by bringing thoughts to mind and issuing cravings or longings for an associated behavior. So, when Jane gets into bed, Ben leaves work on Friday night, or John feels stressed, all they consciously experience is the craving—seemingly out of the blue. The brain learns, “This behavior is how you respond to or cope with this situation,” and it largely takes over, only asking for your conscious attention at the point of cravings for the habituated behavior. 

The disappearance of conscious decision-making in its multiplicity of typical choice points introduces the first measure of powerlessness to the learning mix. 

Unlearning Compulsive Associations

  • Reshape your environment, avoiding triggers—where possible. Often, you can reshape elements of your environment to avoid cues or triggers that lead to unwanted cravings. This could mean putting your phone in a different room at night, driving a different way home from work, or adding site blockers to your laptop. Of course, not all changes are as simple as those mentioned here. Environmental shifts involving significant changes in relationships or familial traditions must be strongly supported by one’s vision and values in order to be sustainable. 
  • Stop, look, and listen. When you experience cravings, pause and take time to identify the cue or trigger. Pay particular attention to internal cues such as loneliness, boredom, or stress. Restoring the trigger emotions or needs to conscious awareness can help you interrupt an addictive association and re-condition a different response to the stimulus. 
  • Recondition your linkage. After identifying an overlearned association, consciously choose, rehearse, and enact a healthy alternative. Over time, you can habituate to the new stimulus-response linkage. Experience suggests that simply avoiding or “shutting down” cravings by force of will lacks sustainability. If you block off an exit ramp by putting up barriers, barricades, and orange cones of all kinds, you must provide an alternate route. Otherwise, the traffic will continue to build up until an inconvenienced commuter finally gets out of the car, moves the barrels, and gets off the exit anyway. Unlearning a harmful association involves consciously and willfully habituating a new response to the underlying need. This could mean intentionally and repeatedly reaching for a book instead of your phone when you get into bed at night, creating a different Friday night ritual, going on a walk, or calling a friend when you’re feeling stressed. Repeatedly responding differently to a cue unwinds old conditioning and binds together new conditioning—empowering recovery! 

Sequences: Our Master Choreographer 

After conditioning, our learning brain next masters choreography. Perhaps we are aware of sequences most in terms of “muscle learning”—playing a concerto, shooting a free throw—but the brain learns complex psychological and behavioral sequences, too, and ritualizes them. When a skilled ballerina learns a dance routine, she will repeatedly practice until she achieves muscle memory. On the day of the performance, she takes the first step, and the rest of the routine unfolds.

The brain masters the choreography of any repeated behavior, including adding side routines and nuanced performances. Again, choice points disappear as “muscle memorization” moves the behavior into an unconscious sequence. What behavioral routines do you have like this one? Every Friday night, perhaps you leave work, get into your car, take off your necktie, drive a certain way through town to the bar, sit down at ‘your’ table, and order the same comfort food or drink. Over time, when you choose the first step, the brain helps you to carry out the sequence thoughtlessly to the very end. 

Over a lifetime, we develop many benign and helpful routines and some defeating ones. When harmful choreography operates outside of conscious awareness, choice, and intention, the second layer of learned powerlessness develops. Self-empowerment comes from re-inserting choice points into the ritualized routine and overlearning a new choreography of recovery. 

Re-choreographing Sequences

  • Identify your ritualized choreography. Having already identified the conditioned trigger, next map out the entire sequence—the behavioral choreography that tends to automatically unfold without conscious choice.
  • Interrupt and re-choreograph the routine. Re-choreographing the ritualized sequence begins after bringing the behavioral chain into conscious awareness. Sever links and forge new ones. As any musician or athlete who has worked to unlearn a poor practice knows, this is tedious and intentional work, requiring methodical, painstakingly slow mental and behavioral walk-throughs of the new way, repeated over and over until they’ve learned the new choreography instead “by heart.” Be alert to re-awakened choice points where you can insert blocking barriers to the old behavior—providing a moment’s pause for conscious reflection and choice—then insert prompts to redirect you to the new choreography. The point is to restore awareness, choice, and intentionality, making it harder for the old ritual to overtake your conscious awareness and engage the old autopilot sequence. 
  • Overlearn the new sequence. We all know that when it’s game time, you hardly have time to think; you default to muscle memory. So, dismantling defeating rituals requires overlearning recovery choreography. You know you’re getting there when it’s the new choreography that starts to unfold “automatically.”

Consequences: Our High-Pressure Salesperson

You’ve probably come across a pushy salesman who pulls out all the stops to get you to “buy now”—promising the moon but delivering only buyer’s remorse. The learning brain likewise delivers an impressive high-pressure sales pitch. The primitive brain, our limbic system, is pain-pleasure-focused and prone to here-and-now obsession and impulsivity. This evolutionary system oversees emotional experience and is much more adept at learning immediate and visceral pain-pleasure consequences than long-term, abstract consequences (e.g., a deteriorating relationship).

The lower brain keeps the nice shiny car and keys in the forefront of consciousness while hiding the extra taxes and fees in the back office. This part of the brain pushes for instinctive, automatic action without conscious input from you. Put simply, it tries to occupy the driver’s seat. If not guided, the lower brain will override the higher brain—the frontal cortex—responsible for impulse control, inhibitory responses, problem-solving, and other behavioral responses that result from thoughtful, conscious reflection.

Rehabilitating addictive patterns, therefore, hinges on conscious, intentional learning of long-term and abstract psychological, spiritual, and relationship consequences. Deconstructing powerlessness thus requires higher-order brain work, or activating the frontal cortex, through intentional effort, mindfulness, and conscious, patient discipline.  

Outwitting the Salesman

  • Bring long-term consequences to the forefront, and make abstract consequences concrete. When confronting the pleasure-focused brain, take a piece of age-old business advice and make it “your deal” instead of “their deal.” Maintain your power by bringing to the forefront the long-term concerns or outcomes that the high-pressure limbic part of the brain tries to hide. Put the prefrontal cortex—our brain’s “defensive driver”—into the driver’s seat. When it comes to compulsivity and addictive behavior, long-term, distal consequences must be memorized and available for instantaneous recall, and abstract consequences need to be considered in concrete terms. 
  • Pandora’s box (remembering negative consequences): An effective way to make the abstract more concrete and bring distal consequences into here-and-now significance is to create a figurative “Pandora’s box” to open when you feel a craving or desire to engage in an unwanted behavior. This could be a letter-to-self or a journal entry reminding your future self of the consequences you experienced the last time. If you are honest and specific, fully re-thinking, re-feeling, and re-visiting the heartache, pain, and devastation of addiction is surprisingly capable of competing with its sense-ational pleasure. This endeavor represents higher-order cognition and “intentional” learning of the distal, abstract consequences. Remind your future self that you do not want to experience these same consequences again and use those visceral feelings to motivate recovery—supporting alternative actions and solutions. 
  • Vision box (Positive consequences): Even more powerful than avoiding negative consequences, is a compelling vision of the person you want to be and the life you want to have. Vision is critical to sustaining recovery long term. Your vision letter or vision box could include a written description or physical symbols helping remind you why making this behavior change matters to you, your desires for your life and relationships, and the kind of person you are working to become. This reminder of your vision could be as simple as a picture of your family or a short note reminding your future self not to give up the long-term good in your life for the short-term pleasure of the behavior. A stipulation here is critical: for this to work, you have to confront and challenge the lie that you can have both the maladaptive behavior and the good life you envision. One must acknowledge that the envisioned life and the addicted life are forever at odds and cannot peacefully coexist.

From Powerless to Empowered

Associations, sequences, and consequences are significant mechanisms of habituation, contributing in predictable ways to an experience of eventual powerlessness over addictive behavior. The learning brain—our butler, choreographer, and salesperson—pushes us to be mindless, habitual, and impulsive buyers of addictive pleasures or escape.  

Understanding the components of powerlessness invites compassion from those trying to see into the experience of addiction and helps those stuck within it to begin to see the way out. The good news is that once learning and other mechanisms of powerlessness are understood, they can be reverse-engineered to undo and disable each aspect of powerlessness. 

Individuals wanting to unravel or disable learning-based mechanisms of powerlessness can, through intentional and consistent effort, forge new associations, interrupt harmful behavioral sequences, and find ways to bring long-term vision and values to the forefront in decision making. Metaphorically, this means putting the stop signs, traffic lights, and warning signs back onto the road to restore helpful choice points. 

We invite you to consider what rehabilitating the learning brain means for you. The same learning brain that forged patterns of powerlessness will also help override them with new patterns of empowerment. By consistent and constant effort, intentionally retraining the brain to establish positive patterns of behavior will—sooner than you think—remove the “right of way” for addiction and enable you to reach your intended destination.

Adapted from Butler, M. H. (2010). Spiritual exodus: A Latter-day Saint guide to recovery from behavioral addiction. Provo, UT: BYU Academic Press; Butler, M. H., Call, M. L., Meloy, K. C., & Zitzman, S. T. (2014). Deconstructing mechanisms of powerlessness for clients seeking recovery: Learning to be powerless over addiction. Sexual Addiction and Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment and Prevention, 21(2), 92-113; Butler, M. H., Meloy, K. C., & Call, M. L. (2015). Dismantling powerlessness in addiction: Empowering recovery through rehabilitating behavioral learning. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity: The Journal of Treatment & Prevention, 22(1), 26-58.

About the authors

Misha Crawford

Misha D. Crawford is a family life educator with a master's degree in Marriage, Family, and Human Development from Brigham Young University.

Mark H. Butler

Mark H. Butler, Ph.D. Marriage and Family Therapy, is a Professor in the School of Family Life, Brigham Young University.
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