Willpower & Addiction

Blog Post created by Dr.Hays on Jun 26, 2015

Last week, I wrote a blog highlighting the difficulty of trying to manage tobacco withdrawal through willpower alone and suggested a more effective use of this cognitive tool in recovery.  What followed was an engaging discussion in the comments that inspired me to expand on the concept of willpower. 


Willpower is viewed as one’s ability to exert control over their thoughts and behaviors through conscious decision-making.  Often, it includes resisting short-term desires to accomplish a long-term goal such as a student electing to study for an important exam instead of going to a party with friends.  Willpower is a positive character trait that uses our higher level brain functioning to delay a small reward today so we can achieve our dreams of tomorrow. 


However, why is it that there are people whom society would see as very successful, strong-willed, and disciplined who cannot seem to quit smoking?  Why was Sigmund Freud, the founding father of psychoanalysis a man who wrote numerous articles and books, treated hundreds of patients, and even stopped his cocaine use, unable to quit smoking and eventually die from his tobacco use?  With his theories of human behavior and self-discipline, shouldn’t he have been able to quit “cold turkey” with willpower alone?


Of course not, and the reasoning behind this lies in our understanding of addiction. 


Addiction is a chronic disease that changes the structure of the brain and affects many areas, particularly those that influence decision-making, behavior control, and learning.  It works on a very primitive, instinctual level that often bypasses or impairs our brain’s higher level functioning.  For example, if I were to throw you a ball and instructed you to not catch it, you would have to consciously resist the impulse to catch.  In the moment when a craving or withdrawal hits, our brain starts functioning on a powerful, unconscious level that often overrides our ability to think clearly and control our actions (like the impulse to catch the ball, but significantly more intense).


As I shared in my previous blog, willpower has a place in recovery as a tool to help us focus on and prepare our plans for quitting.  It is, however, not very effective as a means to control cravings to smoke because addiction simply functions on a different level.  If you are contemplating a quit attempt, consider spending time on BecomeAnEx.org and the Ex community.  You will find a collective wisdom in recovery, a great deal of empathy and acceptance, and helpful tools for living a smoke-free life!