How a Change in Environment Could Help You Conquer Addiction
A study dating back to the 1970s demonstrates how changing environmental factors and cues can actually help people overcome addiction and avoid relapsing. The study, heavily questioned and doubted in its own time, is now being viewed as valuable to current ideas about how we change behaviors and how addiction can be conquered.
Heroin Addiction in Vietnam
The study in question was conducted in the early 1970s and involved soldiers in Vietnam returning to the U.S. About 20 percent of these soldiers were addicted to heroin, a troubling fact for many Americans. It also troubled President Richard Nixon, and, in response to the statistic, he created the Special Action Office for Drug Abuse Prevention. He allocated funds for prevention, rehabilitation and for studying what happened to the addicted soldiers upon their return to the U.S.
Researchers assigned the task of studying the soldiers found that nearly 20 percent self-reported being heroin addicts. Every enlisted soldier returning to the U.S. was subjected to testing for heroin addiction. Those found to be abusing heroin were kept in Vietnam to get sober before returning home. Upon the soldiers’ return, the researchers found something shocking: only about 5 percent of the addicted soldiers relapsed when back in the U.S. This was surprising because relapse rates among treated addicts within the U.S. are much higher. For decades the research was assumed to be flawed. The results couldn’t possibly be so positive, most experts assumed.
Few experts believed the study was accurate because ideas about behavior in the 1970s and 1980s were different than they are today. Experts in those decades believed that changing behaviors could be accomplished by changing attitudes. Research tells us now that this may be true for infrequent behaviors, but not for those that are ingrained.
What we know now about behaviors is that when they are frequent and that when they occur repeatedly in the same environment, our brains go on autopilot when performing those behaviors. Think about how much your mind can wander as you drive to work, and yet you still get there. You perform the same behaviors so often in the environment of your car and route to work that you can do it without thinking about it.
The same works for addiction. If you try to quit smoking, avoid the places you usually smoke. Being in that environment is a powerful cue and will make you reach for a smoke. If you are trying to stop eating sugar, eat somewhere new. When you are about to reach for a sugary treat, doing something different can stop you in your tracks and get you out of autopilot mode. For instance, if you try to eat that treat with your left hand, you will be jolted into recognition of what you’re doing and why. You get a second to think about it and reconsider.
Our modern understanding of how behaviors become routine and how we can change them explains the once-shocking results of the Vietnam study. The soldiers were able to abstain from heroin because they were taken out of the environment in which they had abused it. Those trying to quit in the U.S. are not removed from their environment. If you want to change a behavior, whether it is an addiction or a New Year’s resolution, think about how you can alter your environment.