Dealing with addictions doesn’t have to be so hard, but for people with ADHD, completely stopping an addiction can be the hardest thing they ever do (or don’t do).
1) High impulsivity. This makes you do things without thinking. With ADHD, you often don’t quite get a chance to think about the side effects of engaging in your addiction – your hand is already in the cookie jar/ lighting the cigarette/ opening the bottle by the time your brain catches up. Luckily, automatic (automagic?) systems, some of which are outlined in my next posts, make it so you don’t have to make complex choices right in your moment of weakness.
2) Need to fade out stimuli or cyclical thoughts. When our minds get overwhelmed, our working memory/short term memory gets flooded, and we tend to reach for whatever we’ve learned will decrease the mental stimulation. It could be the endorphins from a chocolate bar, the fuzzy feeling after a drink, or the adrenaline pumping feeling of video games, but whatever it is, it releases your mind from the gridlock it was previously facing, which is why your addiction is so very addictive.
3) Need to nullify emotions that are too strong: Similar to the above point, as well as feeling mentally overwhelmed, being emotionally overwhelmed floods our working memory, which is needed to make good choices and think straight. Our addictive activity tends to bring us back to our emotional baseline as it dulls the emotions and gives us a break from the anxiety/sadness/depression/fear that was previously gripping us, allowing us to function.
4) ADHD brains learn from exceptions. We have a bit of a different dopamine delivery system than non ADHDers, in that we often don’t have a regular supply of it, while others have it constantly rolling in an orderly fashion through their systems. Since dopamine is the hormone in charge of helping remember/bookmark important things for future use and filing them accordingly, when we’re in short supply of it, we don’t remember and organize events as others are able to.
Think of regular dopamine delivery systems like a really sharp secretary who needs a good reference from you. She is sharp and alert and eager to please. She will try to look busy when you’re around, bring you your coffee just as you like it, and will always remember to throw the garbage into the right dumpster after her shift. Now think of the ADHD dopamine delivery system like a hung over secretary, who is also your niece, and therefore knows she can’t get fired. She’s got some good stories and is great to hang out with, but she will likely file your inbox things in your outbox, and maybe throw some important things in the garbage. She’s a bit distracted, will leave the garbage in the staff room for someone else to deal with, and may nap now and again.
With this type of dopamine system, you are very likely to learn from exceptions instead of experience, as your receptionist perks up for interesting things (like a crash in the parking lot, or a cranky client being extra nice one day), but snoozes through the regular going-ons. Because of this buggy dopamine system, our brains are somewhat geared to mostly learn things when something exceptional has happened and make that the rule, like getting to work in 15 minutes instead of the usual 30, or not craving another Lays chip after you’ve already had one (a rare occurrence for us all, I’m sure).
So instead of remembering that over-drinking will USUALLY lead you to feeling depressed, or that playing video games until 4am will USUALLY make you late for class, we remember that freak time when it all worked out okay, perhaps 2 years ago. Essentially, we’re always in a race to live up to fluke-induced standards!
Now that you know why bad habits are so hard to kick, keep an eye out for my next several posts in the series around creating fool proof, automatic systems to whip your hungover receptionist into the employee of the year.