Postscript on willpower

In poking around the internet, I found another willpower study, this one focusing on addiction. It came up with the interesting result that smokers who believe they have lots of willpower are more likely to relapse than smokers who believe their willpower is weak.  It turns out the two groups behave very differently based on their beliefs: the ones who credit the strength of their willpower are more likely to hang around with people who smoke or go places where they will be around cigarette smoke—and they are more likely to relapse as a result.  The other group, with no faith in their willpower, avoids circumstances that require them to rely on willpower in the first place. In other words, they’ll choose to avoid the party where everyone is smoking.

I’ve come to think of habit and addiction as two points on a continuum, with the difference between the two a matter of complexity. A friend came up with this cute definition: habits are things that sneak up on us when we’re not paying attention.  Another definition of a habit—good or bad—is a behavior that doesn’t require our conscious attention.

It’s a handy feature of human life, this ability to program ourselves and then just let the programming run.  I habitually hang my keys by the door; I consciously chose to develop the habit because I don’t like what happens when I can’t find my keys.  I walk every day, because I like myself and my life better when I walk every day.  These habits are shortcuts for me—they reduce stress in my life.

But when I talk to clients about habits, we’re usually talking about “bad” habits—things we do automatically that we wish we didn’t, like lighting a cigarette, finishing a bag of potato chips or a bottle of wine, settling on the couch instead of heading to the gym, etc.  There’s a complex web of life experience involved in making an addiction out of a simple habit, and untangling the web, undoing the connections, separating and untangling all those strands can be a correspondingly complex task.

We use essentially the same tools in dealing with problems on either end of that habit/addiction continuum. We use hypnosis to uncover and support motivation to change.  We look at the “benefit” the habit provides so we can replace it with a healthier alternative. (This step sounds something like this: “Thank you for providing such reliable comfort when I needed it—but now I have different way to meet that need.”) We provide support for the behavior we want to encourage, including relaxation, and we bolster confidence in a successful outcome.

Because visualizing an activity under hypnosis activates the same areas of the brain as actually performing the activity, an important part of any session is the client visualizing what it looks, sounds, and feels like to be a non-smoker (or whatever the desired behavior is). Under hypnosis, visualizing oneself successfully making healthier choices has all the power of previous experience.  Given the results of the study I just mentioned, it’s good that we also include devising strategies for avoiding or dealing with temptation, and then visualizing using those strategies successfully.

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