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Struggling to say no to your guilty pleasures? Here’s why it’s so hard to kick a habit

Posted by
Alix Walker
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Sugar, wine, online shopping, Netflix. Stylist investigates the things we can’t say no to, however hard we try.

 I think my friend Sally might be a sociopath. I first clocked it a few years ago, the type of deviant behaviour that genuinely shakes you.

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I peered into her fridge, looking for a drink, and found leftover Easter eggs, neatly folded in their purple wrappers, three whole months after the big bunny had been and gone.

What sort of monster can take a nibble of chocolate and just leave it, staring at her every time she opens the fridge, for months? For me, one bite and chocolate develops a voice that taunts me for the entire evening – “just one more square you weak glutton” – until I polish off the entire thing. When it comes to chocolate, I simply have no stop button.  

But then again, I think she feels the same way about the unopened bottle of wine in my fridge that has been there for weeks. In her house, it wouldn’t have lasted the night.

Whether it's chocolate, wine or a good Netflix binge - our vices make us human.

For most of us, there is always at least one thing – whether it’s Percy Pigs, tattoos, online shopping, our ex-boss’s Instagram feed, Netflix or late nights at work – which we simply cannot approach moderately.  

Something that we cannot say no to, however hard we promise ourselves that one drink, one bite, one quick scroll really is enough. The one area of our lives in which, despite our best intentions, resolutions to change every Sunday night, self-imposed limits and post-event comedowns, moderation just doesn’t seem to work.  

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“Every week I promise myself I’ll only drink at the weekend; I have so much on with work and I need to catch up on a pretty big sleep deficit,” says Jennifer Cooper*, 36.

“But by Wednesday I’m stressed, so I go for after-work drinks, setting myself a limit of being home by 9pm. The next thing I know, it’s 11.30pm, I’m six glasses of wine deep and I know I’m going to feel horrendous the next day. I’m a pretty self-controlled person in every other area of my life but I just have no resolve when it comes to drinking.”

My vice may be sugar, yours may be boxset binges, but most of the habits we have trouble controlling have one thing in common: they all release a hit of delicious dopamine, the ‘reward hormone’, which initially evolved as a survival mechanism to reward behaviour crucial to our survival, like having sex or eating sugar.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which basically tells the brain that whatever it just experienced is worth getting more of. Today, every habit-forming drug – from alcohol to nicotine – and most addictive behaviours – from shopping to gaming to using social media – utilises this reward system to keep you coming back for more. 

Even the toughest will can be cracked by three words: after work drinks.

But it’s not simply dopamine at play. “The more we do something, the easier it becomes, because we’re effectively etching a welltrodden groove into our neural pathway,” says Judith Grisel, author of Never Enough: The Neuroscience And Experience Of Addiction.

“As habits form we disengage the pre-frontal cortex, which is good because it means you don’t have to concentrate to perform that behaviour [sinking glasses of wine after work, mindlessly inhaling Jaffa Cakes, playing the same video game] which is partly why these habits are so appealing and offer a welcome relief from stress.”

Then there are the associations we create with that behaviour. For me, the more stressed I am, the more likely I am to seek comfort in a loaf of bread and salted butter. For others, it’s at the bottom of a negroni or parting with cash for a new Zara haul. 

We’ve learnt to associate our habits as a cure for feelings we find hard to sit with – anger, loneliness, stress – so our brains instantly crave them when we feel anything negative. And unfortunately, our brains are hardwired to put the instant reward of dopamine ahead of any future goals, like having enough sleep to wake up in time for a pre-work strength class or saving some money this month instead of buying more shoes.  

Seeking out vices isn’t a new thing. Just look at the tale of Adam and Eve, the original story of irresistible temptation, or cave paintings that show people having hallucinatory experiences next to pictures of magic mushrooms. Even animals are susceptible: bees can be spotted flying around drunkenly after drinking nectar that’s been fermented by natural yeasts.

Weak points are human nature. But the modern world has gotten very good at taking advantage of this innate physiology to exploit our weak points, peppering our daily lives with temptations (sugar and salt-loaded junk food, exploitative technology, targeted marketing) to constantly trigger our dopamine systems.  

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Companies invest millions of pounds into figuring out the exact formula of salt, sugar and crunch that will make these crisps/pizzas/cookies literally addictive-it’s called the bliss point. Junk food manufacturers go for big, bold flavours – think Doritos or salted caramel chocolate – that intrigue the tastebuds but don’t have a single distinct taste like, say, broccoli, which tells the brain to stop eating. 

Casinos have long capitalised on a formula whereby slot machines ‘hit’ just enough times to keep people playing, even though on average everyone loses money. By making it random, it causes people to think it’s ‘luck’, which gives them a hit of dopamine.

This is known as the intermittent reinforcement rule. It’s the exact same rule that tech companies use today. Those alerts on your phone that ping off at random times? That’s the intermittent reinforcement rule at play. Sean Parker, the founding president of Facebook, has admitted that’s what the entire company was based on: “Whenever someone likes or comments on a post or photograph we give you a little dopamine hit.” The internet is made to keep you surfing at 1am when you swore you’d be asleep by 11pm.  

Woman on iphone
Using social media during the day can lead to worse sleep at night.sty

The other way in which the modern world keeps you hooked is immediacy. Once upon a time, getting yourself a new pair of shoes was a drawn out affair – wait until the weekend then get the bus to the one shop in town that sold them. Today, at the click of a button, you can have your new pair of sandals within two hours.

It’s not just shopping, you can satisfy your fried chicken craving at the tap of your Deliveroo app; there’s a premixed gin and tonic in your fridge just waiting for you if a jolt of stress hits; Candy Crush taunts you every time you look at the clock on your phone.  

“By combining the reward-based learning built into our brain with intermittent reinforcement and immediate availability, we have created a dangerous formula,” says psychiatrist Dr Jud Brewer, (drjud.com). We live in a world of instant gratification and it trips our dopamine buttons constantly.

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Though today’s world may be set up to keep pushing our vices, many of the things we are talking about are fine (note there are no illegal drugs or illegal behaviour on this list) if we can enjoy them moderately.

In moderation, sugar is perfectly healthy. In moderation, doctors believe alcohol can be beneficial. New studies have shown that moderate social media use has no detrimental effect on our self-esteem. Even stress, if moderate, is beneficial.

It’s easy to forget this when people make careers out of being virtuous – vegan, screen-free, organic – and a different idealised way of living is peddled at us weekly. Absorbing these unrealistic lifestyles can lead to an ‘all or nothing’ attitude, which makes us feel small improvements are pointless and that complete life transformation is the only answer.  

It's only natural to need an outlet for daily stresses, but moderation is key.

“I resolve to eat well, and for the most part I do,” says Chantelle Williams, 28. “But I see these people on Instagram who are completely sugar-free and it makes me miserable. Next thing I know, I’ve bought a pack of doughnuts and eaten the whole thing because I think my efforts are pointless in comparison.” 

Striking the balance 

The fact is, to expect us to live a life without any so-called vices isn’t healthy in itself. We are stressed, bored, angry and overworked at times and we do need an outlet.

“To live a healthy lifestyle is to balance the social, the emotional, the physical and the cognitive domains,” says Brandon Marcello, a high performance strategist who has worked with Olympic athletes to reform habits such as playing too many video games, eating junk food and over-training. 

“Many of us get caught up viewing health and wellness through the lens of the physical domain and we often forget about the equally important cognitive, social and emotional domains. We tend to drive decisions to eliminate vices based upon the physical impact. Take dessert for instance. If you are attending a party with your family and everyone is having dessert except you (because it’s unhealthy, physically), you’re potentially missing out on some major social, emotional, and cognitive benefits of eating dessert in that setting, and actually doing more harm than good.”  

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The message being, give yourself a little leeway if you’ve just inhaled a family-size pack of Kettle Chips or you’re on coffee number three by 10am. “Everyone is susceptible to bad habits and complete self-control is extremely rare,” adds Grisel. “The only way to tell if your habit is a genuine problem is by your behaviour. How many hours of sleep are you missing because of it? How much money are you spending on it? How many commitments are you missing because of it?”  

For the majority of us, however, it’s just about getting control of the habit so we can enjoy it for a finite time rather than it controlling us. So how do you implement a stop button if you’d like to put some limits on your habits? 

Just in the same way that our bad habits are learned through repeated behaviour, we can learn self-control through repetitive behaviour. Again, it’s like building a muscle,” says Grisel. So, while forcing yourself to turn your phone’s flight mode on at 8pm is torturous on night one, it becomes almost habitual by night 14. Just keep repeating the good behaviour.  

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The other way is by implanting that dreaded word: moderation. We’ve all said on a Sunday night, “I’m never drinking again in my life ever”, but these grand declarations of change are often a stumbling block.

Studies consistently show that when people try to exert too much self-control it can backfire and they end up with less – hence why you’re face-deep in a bottle of wine by Tuesday. Instead, set small, achievable goals. The human brain is wired to favour instant gratification over a delayed reward. If you break your big goal into smaller goals – say, I will only watch one episode of Euphoria tonight – and assign a valuable reward for each goal achieved – I can then watch three episodes on Sunday afternoon – your willpower will be activated.  

Another way to activate it is to look at your habits overall rather than honing in on just one. A 2015 study found that people with good self-control tend to have lots of good habits, like exercising regularly, eating healthily, sleeping well and studying. 

Perhaps the most obvious – but surprisingly effective – way to kick a habit is to make it harder to access that habit in the first place. So if you take the habit of watching too much Netflix, for example, instead of having every available piece of furniture pointing towards the screen, try covering it, or turning your chair to face the other way, or hiding your remote control.

The same principle applies elsewhere: swap nights out at the pub for an alcohol-free ‘experience’ with friends; throw away your chocolate biscuits or take access to your work emails off your phone. 

And if you really want to gain control over your habit, experts agree that mindfulness is the answer. “Mindfulness entails paying close and careful attention to our thoughts and behaviours in a non-judgemental way,” explains Mark Mitchnick, CEO of MindSciences. 

He recommends following a four-step process whenever a craving hits: “First, recognise or relax into what is arising. Once you’re aware of the behaviour, don’t run away from it. Secondly, accept it and allow it to be there. You can’t force it to go away. Instead, turn towards the craving and allow the experience of the craving to be felt in your body. 

Thirdly, investigate and be curious about the bodily sensations, emotions and thoughts. Finally, note what is happening from moment to moment. Do you feel tightness, restlessness or some other sensation?

“When you follow this flow, you are engaging the parts of your brain involved in habit formation and habit change. You’re no longer fighting the craving, you’re making it your friend so that you can work with it, you’re turning off autopilot and creating new pathways that, if repeated enough times, become your new normal. The craving goes away because you have taught yourself that the reward wasn’t really as great as you thought it was. It’s about allowing, and not forcing, your habits to change over time.”  

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We have a lot on our plates and adding ‘live a completely virtuous life’ on top of that is pretty unrealistic. But with a bit of moderation, a little mindfulness and taking steps to make it harder to access whatever it is that turns us from self-controlled into ‘just one more’, we have our own stop button ready to press when we need it.

 “I want to take it easy on the drinking today…”

Stylist’s Hollie Richardson has no stop button for alcohol. We asked psychotherapist Dr Sheri Jacobson (harleytherapy.com) to analyse her voice notes at a wedding.  

For Hollie, weddings and day drinking go hand in hand.

Hollie: It’s the morning of the wedding and yesterday, when I went up to the venue with my friends, we were drinking all day so I had lots of wine. I’m feeling OK but it’s made me want to take it easy on the drinking today as I’m definitely going to be ready for bed tonight.

Sheri: She’s started off with alcohol in her system. This impacts in three ways: withdrawal of a substance makes us crave more; the alcohol weakens our inhibitions so we’re less likely to say no to things; and it also alters our thought process and lessens our willpower.

Hollie: I had a mimosa with breakfast because everyone else did. My friend said it was tradition. Plus it doesn’t feel like a real drink because I had plenty of juice.

Sheri: There are three types of behaviour happening here which are very common when it comes to alcohol. The first is justification: “my friend said…”. The second is minimising – we reduce the impact of alcohol to suit our intentions. And the third shows the power of social influence and persuasion. Most people would be encouraged to drink in this situation as there’s no counterbalance.    

Hollie's plan to take it easy didn't quite go as she'd hoped.

Hollie: Obviously you get a free drink at the ceremony. I could have opted not to, but I got a Pimm’s. Probably because everyone else was enjoying it and it doesn’t really feel like a strong drink. Plus it’s really refreshing when it’s hot.

Sheri: The more you drink, the more your inhibitions are going to flail as the alcohol impacts the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that censors and controls our behaviour. It also initiates the priming effect: if we give our body a small amount of something, we initiate further desire.

Hollie: The ceremony is over and we get a free glass of prosecco. Again, I could have had a non-alcoholic one, but to be completely honest I was feeling quite hungover from yesterday and this is about succumbing to it – I think it might be easier to just go with the flow. I just can’t say no to free things. And now I might just go and buy a drink.

Sheri: This is quite a pivotal tipping point because she is effectively giving away her power to control her own actions and behaviour. We often turn to alcohol in times of experiencing difficult emotions and having your mind effectively handed over can be very relieving.  

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Hollie: I’ve had a couple more wines now and I’ve come outside for a bit. I’ve been thinking about how I said at the start of the day that I wanted to take it easy, so why can’t I just keep to that? I don’t want to feel tomorrow the same way that I did this morning. But I know there’s going to be dancing, and at a party I always have a drink in hand. I’m not saying I can’t have fun without a drink, but it’s opportunities like this that are for letting your hair down. I don’t think I should feel guilty about carrying on drinking, you know?

Sheri: What’s interesting is she knows drinking won’t make her feel great – she’s recalling the negative impacts even when she’s clearly intoxicated. Alcohol is a depressant, but it does give us a little hit of dopamine when we first drink it and it’s that we always cling to, not the physical pain of a hangover afterwards.

Hollie: Two tequila slammers down – oh god, that’s really embarrassing. I had to do karaoke and I needed some Dutch courage, I was nervous. And I’m sorry. Hollie [the next morning]: There was wine after wine. There was karaoke. I was thinking, ‘I’m going to be taking part and I need to be plied with wine’. I remember that as soon as I finished my drink I went back to the bar for the next one. This is quite worrying now it’s all noted down – but this is what everyone does, right?

Sheri: If you want to moderate your drinking, you need a plan in place. Begin by writing a list of the negatives: physical and mental tolls, missed commitments, costs. Then plan your safety points: what will you do when you’re offered a drink, could you go for a walk, or to the toilet? What are your weak points? Could you enlist a friend to help you? Then decide the language you’re going to use – ‘shouldn’t’ and ‘can’t’ are punitive. Say, ‘I don’t want another drink’, not ‘ I shouldn’t’. You are in control.    

Photography: Denis Pedersen

*name has been changed

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Alix Walker

Alix Walker is editor-at-large at Stylist magazine. She works across print, digital and video and could give Mary Berry a run for her money with her baking skills. 

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