This article is about how to give up addictions naturally and easily.
But first the backstory on a recent failure of mine. Last year I had a goal to “Naturally improve my sleep and energy.” I totally failed for the entirety of 2012. And I failed because of my addiction to caffeine, especially in the form of a hot, frothy latte.
This failure was before my revelation about my wellbeing habits and my decision to turn my life inside out again. With the new tools I’ve been using since my revelation, I’ve recently stopped using caffeine and my sleep and energy have indeed naturally improved.
My Caffeine Addiction
A year ago I spend my second winter in Antigua, Guatemala. It’s one of my favorite places to stay for a bunch of reasons, including the fact that it’s one of the best coffee-producing regions in the world. My daily ritual was to wake up around dawn and stroll down to an open-air café in the central square where I would sip a divine latte as I caught up on the news (New York Times and Facebook) as the sun rose over the 14th century cathedral ruins across the other side of the park. I was always the first customer in the café, and I loved the ritual of seeing the world wake up around me.
I was heavily caffeinating myself each morning, working on my computer all day, drinking some aged Guatemalan rum in the evening to relax and then taking Benadryl so I could sleep at night.
A much younger friend came to visit me for a couple of weeks. At one point he commented that I seemed to always be tired. I dismissed his observation, thinking to myself that he slept eight or nine hours a night while I only slept five or six.
But I was missing the wisdom in his observation. I was trapped in a cycle of taking stimulants in the mornings and depressants at night in a way that made me never able to truly rest, and never able to be full awake. I was always tired, and I was never fully rejuvenated.
Since starting my new wellness habits two months ago, I’ve become much more aware of what’s going on in my body and with my emotions. As this awareness has developed, I have started to notice that the more coffee I drink, the worse I feel for the next 12 hours. I tend to be more jittery, don’t sleep as well and find it harder to focus.
So, I decided to give up caffeine.
The typical way to give up an addiction is to make a bold commitment and go cold turkey. That’s the hard way. But that’s not my way. I don’t like the hard way.
We Can Do This The Easy Way, or The Hard Way
The hard way to quit any addiction is to do it cold turkey by force of will. The easy way is to find out what emotional wound is driving the addiction and heal that. Without an emotional would driving the addictive behavior, the behavior itself naturally becomes unimportant and is easy to stop. I succeeded in quitting smoking ten years ago using this technique.
I had tried to quit smoking a few times previously, but each time I quit, I had started smoking again during some challenging period my life when the urge to smoke overcame my willpower not to smoke.
Ten years ago I finally succeeded in quitting smoking. At that time I was just starting my Body-Psyche practice, and was well versed in paying attention to my body and emotions.
Now, I knew from my training that the main emotional driver for smoking is to numb emotions of sadness and loss in the lungs. So long as there are unresolved emotions in the lungs, it’s going to be very hard to quit smoking. (The physiological nicotine addiction wears off in a few days after quitting. It’s the emotional addiction that keeps people coming back to the death sticks.)
I wanted to find a way to quit smoking that wasn’t going to involve an act of sheer will, and wasn’t going to leave me always craving a cigarette and likely to go back to smoking at some point in the future.
I took on a practice that whenever I wanted a cigarette, I would wait five minutes and explore what feelings were coming up that I wanted to suppress with the cigarette. I did this every time I wanted a cigarette, and then after the five-minute delay would smoke the cigarette as usual.
As I became more and more aware of the feelings that I had been suppressing with smoking, I started to work on healing those emotional wounds – gradually releasing the feelings of loss and sadness that I had been hiding in my lungs.
Once I sensed that I had released enough of the emotional load to be comfortable not smoking, I increased the delay I enforced before smoking to from five to thirty minutes. After a few days on that regime – once I was confident that there were no hidden emotions left that I couldn’t deal with – I went cold turkey.
I had the nicotine withdrawal cravings for a few days, but I knew that was a purely physical addiction that would pass fairly quickly.
Within a couple of weeks I had stopped craving cigarettes. Within a couple of months I had stopped thinking about them all together.
Ten years later I haven’t smoked another cigarette. And it hasn’t required any force of will to keep myself from smoking again. When I come to challenging emotional periods in my life I almost never think of smoking, and on the rare occasions that I do, it’s easy to resist.
The Emotional Drivers of My Caffeine Addiction
With that background, the best way for me to quit caffeine would to increase my awareness of what emotions I was using the caffeine to avoid, deal with those emotions, and once those emotional wounds were no longer active, then just stop drinking caffeine.
When I embarked on this process, I was staying with my buddy Mark Manson in an apartment in Sâo Paulo, Brazil. There was an espresso machine in the lobby that served fantastic espresso, for free. I have to admit that the temptation was intense and process wasn’t easy. But I started on a discipline of cutting down or cutting out caffeine to see what emotions the caffeine was burying.
On the days that I drank caffeine I noticed that my mind was racing, my fingers sped across my keyboard (sometimes too quickly) and I was disassociated from my emotions in general.
On the days that I didn’t drink caffeine I noticed that I was more relaxed mentally and physically, and that I was much more aware of my emotional body – sometimes to the degree that my emotions would distract me from my work focus.
From a couple of weeks of observation, I surmised that the effect of the caffeine on my brain was to increase my frontal lobe activity (rational, cognitive thought) and to suppress my parietal activity (emotional processing). In other words, for me at least, it’s a drug for disconnecting my mind from my body so I can focus on work.
The bad news was that drinking caffeine was helping me do the exact opposite of what I’m committed to for my own wellbeing and personal development.
With that in mind as I cut down my caffeine consumption, I continued my daily ritual of connecting with what was going on in my emotional body and gently releasing any discomforts or wounds that came up.
I started that process of gradual caffeine elimination a few weeks ago. I’m now caffeine free.
What prompted me to write this article today was that I realized that I haven’t drunk any caffeine in a while, and I haven’t been craving it either. My addiction ended without me even being aware of the change.
I woke up from a long, deep nap this afternoon and wanted to rejuvenate myself before going back to work, so I went for a swim in the pool. That worked just fine and caffeine didn’t even cross my mind as a solution for an energy boost. As I was enjoying the afterglow of my swim I remembered that a few weeks ago I would have been craving caffeine in that same situation.
Without caffeine I’m sleeping better. I have more energy. And I feel more grounded.
And the important thing is that I’ve given up the addiction without using force of will to constantly overcome the cravings.
Giving Up All Addictions
When I have given up addictions using this process (cigarettes and caffeine) I’ve felt more whole and more myself after working through what I needed to in order to give up the addiction. I just like myself and like my life better. So, I’ve decided to identify and give up all addictions in my life.
The other two addictions that I have been aware of are alcohol and chocolate.
I’m light drinker, but I’ve been using it a way to relax in the evenings, and as a social lubricant, especially when I go out in new foreign countries, where I often don’t speak the language and want to make new friends in unfamiliar environments. My desire to drink at night has been dropping naturally along with my work on caffeine and my general increase in self-awareness. My need to drink when I go out has also been dropping as I use the tools I put together for developing self confidence to feel more at ease in new social situations. I’ll keep working with both those drivers for drinking until neither is an issue.
I love dark, bitter chocolate. I used to eat some at least daily, mostly first thing in the morning. From what I can tell from the scientific research, dark chocolate isn’t bad for you, and may actually be good for you. The only reason I potentially classify it as an addiction for me is that I think I often ate it for emotional rather than purely gustatory reasons. Chocolate hadn’t been on my list of important addictions to drop, but I’ve noticed that I’ve just cut way down on my chocolate consumption over the last couple of weeks. Instead of once or twice a day it’s dropped to every few days. I think this has been a natural, unplanned, benefit of all the other emotional development work I’ve been doing.
As and when other addictions come to my awareness, I plan on using a similar process to heal the wounds driving the addiction until I no longer have the craving. Not because there’s anything wrong with minor addictions like having a beer at night or eating dark chocolate for breakfast, but because the fewer active wounds I have driving addictions, the more alive and satisfied I feel.
I just like life better this way.
Righteousness is an Addiction
Some people will read this article and have a sense of righteous vindication as they vigorously agree that addictions are bad and that giving them up is good.
If you’re one of those people, you’re missing the point of this article. In fact, I’d go further. If you’re a health nut who’s righteous about eating and living ‘right’ all the time, and if you significantly coerce yourself to achieve that, then I’d say that’s just another form of addiction. (Just like too much exercise is a form of addiction.)
As a personal example, in the mid-nineties I was in a miserable marriage and was severely, clinically depressed. At that time I hired a personal trainer who gave me a grueling diet and exercise regime. I followed it to the letter. At one point I was at 13% body fat at could bench 300 pounds.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but in retrospect my maniacal ‘health and fitness’ regime was 100% about avoiding feeling what I was feeling. (Which, ironically, prevented me from healing.) My rigorous diet and exercise routine was just another form of addiction to avoid dealing with my feelings.
So, if you’re righteous and have rigid rules about what you and other people should and should not eat, then I’d invite you to consider that it’s a form of addiction and that there’s an emotional wound you’re avoiding.
Oh, which reminds me. Different people have different brain chemistries and also metabolize caffeine differently. I know at least two people for whom caffeine helps them focus and does not interfere with their sleep. So I’m not saying caffeine is bad for people in general. I’m just saying that I’ve found that I like my life better when I don’t need it and don’t drink it. Different strokes for different folks.
Keeping All Vices
I plan on giving up all my addictions, but keeping all my vices.
There are times when nursing an aged Guatemalan rum or drinking a few a Jack Daniel’s on the rocks with a good friend is a great way to spend an evening. I’ll continue to do that when the opportunity arises and I’ll enjoy every moment of it with zero guilt. As another example, I was recently out with a group of new friends and was not planning on drinking. When I declined a drink it was a total buzz kill for the group. I changed my mind, got drunk with them and we had a great time. I didn’t enjoy the hangover the next day, but I did enjoy my evening enormously. There’s nothing wrong with that.
Chocolate just tastes good. I bought a wonderful bar of artisan-crafted chili chocolate in South Africa and shared it with a friend here in The Philippines. We were both in heaven as we savored the flavor.
There’s a café in Tokyo that makes a green tea latte from powered green tea that is out of this world. (The pure powder ingredient costs US $70 an ounce and it’s worth it!) Next time I go back there I’m going to have a real dilemma. I love the flavor of the drink, but I no longer want the buzz of the caffeine. I’m not sure what I’ll order next time I’m in the café, but my choice will be based on my preference that particular day, rather than rules or judgment.
Who knows, I might even start searching for new vices that I can enjoy as guilt-free pleasures.
My new motto: “None of the addictions, all of the vices.”
You Can Do It
The key to giving up addictions naturally is to be aware of what’s driving the addiction, and to heal that before quitting the behavior. (Yes, I’m aware that there are some drugs that create long-term chemical addictions and dependencies. Those are outside the scope of this article.) For addictions that don’t have long-term chemical dependency components, there are a bunch of personal development resources that you can use on this site. I suggest you start with these two:
These are tools that will allow you to find out what the drivers are behind your addictions and start to heal them. Once that’s done, quitting the unwanted behavior becomes fairly easy.
Great, the article is done. I’m going to get a drink to celebrate!