It is interesting to see how many things we do, not because we want to do them, but because something else has triggered a desire within us. Anyone who does counseling learns to help people identify the triggers which tempt them to negative behavior.
Among men the problems caused by pornography addiction can be quite destructive—damaging relationships, and hurting the women who love these men. I have seen more than my share of marriages in trouble because of a husband’s inability to control this. Just like all addictions there are triggers which can lead a man, even one determined not to stray, to seek comfort in glossy photos and downloaded images. For some men it is arguments with their wife, trouble with their boss or their finances, and even a simple sense of being out of control that can trigger these behaviors.
Smoking is another addiction that has triggers. I used to smoke five packs a day and for me almost everything was a trigger. Some triggers for cigarettes can be arguments, stressful relationships, food, sex, exertion, worry, drinking. Many who have smoked for a long time may find the initial quitting easy, but finding themselves assailed by temptations caused by a trigger event—like an argument with a spouse. Once when my wife and I both tried to quit smoking, we started arguing and about three hours into quitting I said, “I’m going to go buy a pack of cigarettes before we kill each other!” Did the cigarette stop the fight or fix the problem? No. The most it did was relieve some of the agitation making us sensitive and ready to fight. The fighting was a trigger—and like most triggers, offered an easy excuse.
Unhealthy foods, as a source of comfort, can also have triggers. Have you ever noticed that these comfort foods never seem to be fruit, vegetables or other healthy options? It is the unhealthy foods we turn to when triggered. Some of this can be blamed on childhood memories. For many of us food was offered to comfort. Perhaps we were given ice cream when sad. We may have been given candy when we scraped our knee. Most of our memories about holidays and childhood happiness involve large meals of fatty, high carb, very sweet foods—the fattest cuts of meat, the gravy, the sweet tea, the multiple deserts, etc. When we think of childhood pleasure and happy times, these are often central.
But is there anything wrong with such foods, for special events? Of course not! This becomes a problem when I seek to replicate the fond memories and good feelings through the foods of that time rather than through the atmosphere. It is also a problem when such actions endanger my life rather than enriching it. When I am heavy and unhealthy and get into a stressful situation I can handle the stress in a healthy way or in an unhealthy way. Perhaps I could choose to go ride my bike, or go for a walk. Perhaps some time meditating, praying, listening to music or doing something creative could relieve the stress. I could also choose to medicate the stress and bad feelings with food, fooling my body into thinking it is feeling better for a brief time and fooling my mind into recalling happier times eating those comfort foods. However, after such a meal, the old stress comes back and is likely compounded with feelings of guilt for making an unhealthy choice and feelings of ill health as blood sugar spikes and falls, with various systems of my body trying to make up for my bad choice.
The trigger happens, but we must still choose. When we sense such triggers we have three options. We can ignore the trigger and try to knuckle through. This can be hard with the most ingrained and deepest seated of triggers. Some triggers have been experienced for so long and the response has been so steady that one has developed almost a muscle memory habit. You see this when a trigger occurs and the next thing you know you find yourself eating (or doing other behavior) and never really thought about doing it—you were almost on automatic pilot. However, in time
and with practice, some triggers can be overcome (for more on the role of habit in addiction see Kent Dunnington’s Addiction and Virtue: Beyond the models of disease and choice.). Our other options are to respond to the trigger. One can choose to respond in a healthy fashion or an unhealthy.
Earlier I mentioned that many men struggle with pornography. A negative response to the triggers in this would be to turn to porn and risk hurting a beloved and faithful spouse. What positive options are there for such a husband when facing this choice? One option I have recommended to such men is to carry a picture of their wife. I have my computer set, so that when I log on, the first thing I see is a picture of my wife smiling at me. I also recommend that such men, when fantasies creep in, turn their thoughts and fantasize about their wife. Believe me guys, no woman minds learning that her husband of ten, fifteen or more years still fantasizes about her. Remember the thoughts about her that filled your mind when you were dating—if you are male you had these thoughts; she had them too but is less likely to admit it. I don’t care if you have been married for thirty years—you should still have fantasized about your wife. And men, you will find that such a practice in directing your thoughts will quickly change your feelings about your wife.
I share this because it is related to the choices faced by one whose triggers lead to a desire to eat. The person can choose to eat the unhealthy foods and suffer the consequences. The person can also choose a healthy option, or may even choose to eat nothing for a time to try to knuckle through the trigger and overcome it. One thing I have resolved to do while on my program is to set a timer for every three hours telling me to eat something. I make it a practice to not eat anything between these times. When I desire something strongly in between I do a self-check. Is it hunger or has something triggered a desire for comfort manifesting as a desire for food? I find that when I argue with my wife, worry about finances or stress over my job, there is a strong desire to eat something. However, knowing this is a trigger I know the desire is not real. It has no true power over me, beyond my own power to choose to surrender or resist. In such cases it is not that I truly want food, it is comfort that I want. I then try to find out how to get that comfort in a healthier way. One thing I want to do over this next year on program is to reprogram myself to not seek comfort from food but find it in more constructive and healthy places.
Why is it, many of us knowing the bad we will reap from giving in to temptations still do so? Why are we willing to accept a tomorrow with poor health as the cost of a today filled with momentary pleasures and comfort? One cause of this can be assumptions having little to do with the food itself. When the trigger is something another person does, we can feel like, “I’ll show her!” This is why many men struggling with porn will turn to it when fighting with their wife. When the trigger is a feeling of being out of control, we can seek control in the bad behavior—“I have no choice in that, but this makes me feel in control.” Another problem can be feelings of hopelessness, “Why am I trying to lose weight, if nothing is going to change?”
We need to come to grips with these and realize that when we seek control through eating unhealthy foods we are actually losing more and more actual control as our body succumbs to ill health. We also should not be losing weight or getting healthy because we expect it to change others. It will not! We must do it because of the impact it has on our own lives, on our own experiences, on our own body. My losing weight it not going to make my wife’s personality or my bosses personality change. My losing weight is not going to make the world a rosier place where everyone is happy. However, my losing weight will make me better at my job (which may improve the relationship with a boss), more emotionally stable for dealing with others (which could improve the relationship with a spouse) and healthier so that I can finally make choices from a position of health rather than being forced into courses of action by illness (which gives a sense of true control).