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You know that the behavior is harmful. Why can’t you stop?

Our latest blog entry comes from Peggilee Wupperman, Associate Professor of Psychology at John Jay College. This entry was originally posted on 7/30/2016 on her “Beyond Self-Destructive Behavior” Blog at Psychology Today.

You have promised yourself that you are not going to engage in any dysregulated behavior this evening.

You’ve told yourself that you absolutely, positively will NOT (pick one or more: have that drink, binge on that food, take those pills, engage in self-harm, place that bet, etcetera). And you are determined to keep that promise.

Then you get home.

You have not had a particularly bad day. You cannot pinpoint any specific reason why you are experiencing cravings and/or urges that feel intolerable. And yet, suddenly all you can think about is that drink/food/pills/harm/bet/etc.

Your situation is not uncommon.

It can be easy to judge yourself in such circumstances. It can also be easy for other people to judge someone who says she/he is going to stop a dysregulated behavior – but then does not do so.

The following is a paraphrased analogy told by a woman who was working to stop drinking; however, it is also relevant to the cravings and urges often experienced when stopping any dysregulated behavior.

People who have never felt controlled by a dysregulated behavior often don’t understand why the behavior can feel so impossible to stop. So let me tell you what the cravings and urges feel like:

Imagine that you have not had any food or beverage except water for more than two days, and you feel famished. At some point, imagine that a person sets up a large buffet in the living room of your home. (This is an analogy; it does not have to make sense.) The buffet contains all of your favorite foods, and the scent of the food is overwhelming.

The person tells you that guests will be arriving to eat the food in a few hours, and you are not supposed to eat or even touch the food – since it is not yours. You agree that you will not eat any of the food.

Then the person leaves. You will be alone with the food for several hours. And you have not had anything to eat for more than two days.

At first, you might try to focus on other things – perhaps watch TV, surf the web, catch up on paperwork from the office, or talk to friends/family. However, you will likely have difficulty focusing on anything other than your intense hunger and the smell of the food.

Eventually, your cravings and urges will likely become so strong that you find it impossible to think about anything else. The urge to eat the food will seem like a powerful force that is almost controlling you. Over time, resisting your cravings/urges for even a few more minutes may feel utterly intolerable.   

That is what cravings and urges feel like when I try to stop my dsyregulated behavior.

Of course, the above story does not fit exactly with all behaviors. However, the intensity and intolerability of the cravings and/or urges do fit what many people feel when working to stop dysregulated behaviors.

Why is the intensity so strong? Earlier posts have discussed why some people find dysregulated behaviors almost impossible to resist. (For the basics, click here. For more details, click here, here, here, and here.) However, the purpose of this post is not to talk about cause. Instead, the purpose is to:

  • decrease judgement, and
  • increase understanding of what cravings and urges can feel like to someone who is in the midst of them.

The above analogy explains why distraction and good ol’ fashioned willpower will often only work for a short time. Methods do exist to help cravings and urges become more tolerable – and eventually help you feel that you are no longer controlled by cravings and urges. Most of those methods often require some form of empirically supported therapy. More details on finding such therapy will be provided in future posts.

Until then, please remember:

  • Before you judge someone who struggles with dysregulated behavior, take a moment to consider that the person’s cravings and urges may feel more intolerable than you can even imagine.
  • Before judging yourself for struggling with cravings and urges, take a moment to remind yourself that your experiences are more common than you may realize.

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