Habits are hard to break. Those who try to cut down on drinking, drugs, pills, gambling or gaming often find that this is not so easy. If you relapse into your old behaviour, it is frustrating. Both for yourself and for the people around you. It may help to gain more insight into why it is so difficult. Our behaviour is influenced by two systems: automatisms (unconscious) and conscious decisions. The balance between these is the basis of the so-called ‘dual process model’.
Our behaviour or what we do is the result of an interaction of two systems:
The automatic system sets your behaviour in motion spontaneously. It works quickly, based on impressions, hunches and feelings. You don’t really have to think about it, so it takes little effort. But that is precisely why it is sometimes difficult to control.
The conscious system initiates behaviour after a decision. It provides conscious attention and reasoning. But it works more slowly, cannot process so many impressions at once and requires a lot of effort. The conscious system also helps to control the decisions of the automatic system. That is, automatisms can be modified or adjusted by our conscious system.
Three automatisms are the engine of the automatic system
Learning something new is difficult at first. Think, for example, of learning to drive a car: you have to change gear, disengage, steer, keep an eye on traffic, and much more. Yet after a while, this happens automatically. Because it becomes a habit for which we use our automatic system.
There are three automatisms that play a role in this. In the case of an alcohol or drug problem, these automatisms run amok, as it were.
- Automatic attention: Your attention is very strongly drawn and held by everything that has to do with your interests and thoughts. If you are dependent on alcohol, for example, your thoughts and perceptions will be affected.
- Automatic memory links: Our memory is constantly making links. For example, a song can automatically remind you of a certain event. It works the same way for those who have or have had problems with drink, drugs and pills or with gambling and gaming. Anything to do with using or playing can automatically remind you of the pleasant intoxication of the past. It may also be that certain negative feelings (pain, tension, …) then disappear.
- Automatic behaviour: Behaviour can be triggered without you really being aware of it. This can be triggered by certain connections (places, times, feelings, people, objects, …). If you have a long-term drinking or other drug problem, you will have a strong, automatic tendency to look for things to do with it. Without consciously choosing to use at the time.
Like a horse and rider
A convenient way to imagine or remember the two systems is to look at automatic system as a horse and the conscious system as a rider.
The horse is powerful and fast. It reacts without thinking and is difficult to stop. The rider steers the horse based on plans and ideas. This is slower, more deliberate and takes effort. The horse and rider need each other. The rider gets nowhere without the horse. Without a rider the horse gets lost and chases everything that is attractive.
Problems with alcohol, illegal drugs, pills, gambling or gaming send the horse reeling. It becomes more difficult to control the three automatisms. Or more difficult for the rider to control the horse. Yet it is not impossible. Because even though it is fast, the horse is not stronger than the rider. The rider can learn to control and subdue the horse.
How can you tame the horse and empower the rider?
You can get more control over your behaviour by outsmarting the horse as a rider. You can do this by thinking ahead. Think in advance about what difficult moments you can expect, with which friends you will hang out, how much money you have in your pocket, what time it ends for you, …
A few tips that can help:
- Keep your attention focused. You can only adjust your behaviour if you also think about it when your stubborn habits kick in. Therefore, look for tools to keep your attention on your plan at the moments that matter.
- Get to know your automatisms. What precedes using, gambling or gaming? It can be a feeling or a certain thought, but also being in a certain place or having contact with certain people. Discover what your signals of desire might be.
- Become aware of your tensions. Physical tension and desire are important signals. If you are tired or stressed, the ‘horse’ will take over more quickly. Exercises that help to focus on the here and now can help at such times.