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Satan Turns the Heat Down

by Patrick Reynolds

My eyes and ears are always open for interesting examples of health communication. Sometimes it comes from the strangest places. A Terry Pratchett novel, an overheard bus conversation, or in today's case, Southpark.

In this episode, Stan has gotten hooked on a free-to-play mobile game. His Dad has been telling him it's because something's wrong with his essential character, that he's trying to fill an emptiness in his soul with his addiction, and that he should seek help from a higher power. This leads to Stan praying at his bedside and the outstanding scene that follows. (Bad language, offensive imagery, and deep wisdom ahead!)

Fabulous.

What Satan does here, ironically, is take the heat out of bad habits and addiction.

Most of us approach our failings from a cultural paradigm that pre-dates medical science. No matter where you're from, your ancestors lacked any significant understanding of biology or brain chemistry. When someone in their community was dealing with an unwelcome habit or addiction, they had no other recourse but to blame it on a problem with their disposition, a figurative (or literal) demon inside that was creating impure thoughts and actions.

This is what I think of as a "hot" approach to psychology. If you're the person judging the addict, you're filled with disgust and righteous indignation. If you're the one struggling with addiction, you deal with waves of bouts of shame, rage, and despair. Everyone in this situation is flushed in the face, fists clenched, dug into their position, and screaming at each other. It's a poor recipe for progress and change.

It doesn't have to be this way. We're not condemned to just labeling addicts as "bad people" anymore. We understand that bad habits almost always stem from the brain seeking hormonal balance and homeostasis.

When someone consumes a drug, be it sugar, nicotine, alcohol, or cocaine, they're almost always trying to either stimulate under-active regions of the brain or relax over-active regions. The substance evokes a hormonal response, often involving serotonin or dopamine, that puts the brain in a more balanced and happy place for a short time. But a brain that's been artificially stimulated will quickly become dependent of the foreign substance, creating a powerful drive for the individual to continue using. And of course the brain acclimatizes to the substance, requiring larger and more frequent doses to get the brain into the desired state. This is what Satan was explaining to Stan. 


At no point in this explanation have we gotten into the morality or character of the individual. We're having a "cool" discussion that has the benefit of being both non-judgmental and scientifically accurate. This is a place we can begin to work from. Being a "bad person" doesn't leave you a lot of concrete actions you can take. Understanding your biology does.

Being a "bad person" doesn't leave you a lot of concrete actions you can take. Understanding your biology does." 

Most of us aren't dealing with debilitating addictions, but we are facing the daily struggle of making healthier food choices and using the hours in the day more productively. No one I know finds this to be an easy process. We all fall off our nutrition plans or waste an afternoon in front of a screen sometimes. When it happens to you, resist the tendency to beat yourself up. Turn the heat down. Investigate what's going on in your life that resulted in you being in that position.

I've found it almost always comes down to one of (or a combination of) these five things:

• Not getting enough sleep.

• Not eating fresh and wholesome food.

• Not getting enough exercise.

• Lack of daily routine.

• Lack of meaningful human interactions.

You'll make a lot more progress towards your goals if you opt out of the blame and shame game, and instead focus on addressing these basic needs. Getting the fundamentals right gives your brain chemistry the best shot at finding homeostasis without the crutch of an artificial substance or time-wasting activity.

Fighting temptation isn't an epic battle for your soul, it's a daily to-do list. You don't need heroic feats of willpower, you just have to get the small, daily, mundane things right. And you have that chance to start today, right now, with your very next choice. Hell yeah!

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