Lim-Sanity: Is It Harder To Quit Cigarettes or To Quit Procrastinating?

Research has shown for decades that it’s damn hard to stop smoking and here are a few reasons why:  Nicotine molecules fit very nicely into neurotransmitting grooves. Thus the brain gets “hard-wired” very quickly.  A cigarette is a very nice, small, compact way to “avoid” anxiety, stressors.  Most people who smoke report a sense of relaxation or calm after that first drag. Yet, a cigarette ACCELERATES everything in your brain and body.

So what happens?  The brain is “tricking” itself to think it’s relaxing.  If you take long deep breaths while smoking, those long deep breaths will provide some level of anxiety reduction. The brain associates this relaxation with nicotine stimulation and believes nicotine is a relaxant.  In other words, the stimulation of the nicotine is greater than the stimulation of the stress or anxiety being felt.  Thus, the brain feels “less” stress or anxiety and mistakes it for relaxation.

If you are addicted to cigarettes or heroin, then quitting involves a monumental effort. What ranks up there with cigarettes and heroin?  Our cursed enemy — procrastination.

Procrastination is also hard-wired. It tricks the brain into believing that it actually provides relief. Procrastination, like smoking, is in service of avoidance (see our workshops for procrastination).

Procrastination is a behavior.  It is a behavior that exists because it is reinforced AND it exists for a reason — it serves a purpose.  Habitualized procrastination (behavior) becomes more entrenched neurochemically. The more a person practices it, the more the brain “grooves” a neurochemical pathway for it.

Procrastination is a fear and/or avoidant response behavior with a purpose:  To avoid danger and to remain safe.  Well how dangerous can it be to cut the grass or wash dishes or return a phone call?  That’s the trick. When the brain is neurochemically entrenched, it does not know the difference between a bear chasing it or returning a phone call.  People become afraid of things like failure,  uncertainty, not doing something well, being discovered or caught, not being liked,  not being able to do things perfectly, making a mistake, being alone.

How does the brain convince itself it is life threatening?  Through the Limbic system.  On a recent episode of “The Big Bang Theory,” Penny vacillates between being jealous and not jealous of a woman flirting with Leonard — which prompts Amy to say, “It’s the Thrilla … adjacent to the Amygala … ” a clever word play on the fight of the century, the ‘Thrilla in Manilla (Clay vs. Foreman).’  What Amy was talking about is the battle between the Frontal Cortex’s Executive functioning vs. the Limbic System’s Flight or Flight” functions.

So, in this corner … the Limbic System … it stores emotional memory; does not distinguish if something is happening now or if it occured in the past; is quick to blur the difference between a REAL danger (being chased by a bear) vs a perceived danger (being yelled at); drives people towards safety, comfort, pleasure, sex; makes neural connections very quickly — so people don’t have to experience something bad in order for them to learn that it’s a threat (we don’t have to stick our hand in fire in order to learn that sticking our hand in fire would be dangerous and painful).

Without the “limbic system” animals and humans would not have survived dangers from an era a long time ago.  Without it today, we would not jump out of the way of an oncoming car.  Without the limbic system and the “drive system,”  reproduction would not be a priority and early humans would not seek comfort and safety from pain and environmental dangers.

Okay, Now … in this corner …. the Frontal Cortex …  responsible for judgement, rational decision-making, gratification delay, organization, planning, long-term rewards, impulse control. Without it, humans would be purely reactive creatures. The frontal cortex regulates the Limbic (and Drive) center of the brain. When both systems are working together, it becomes easier to experience wisdom, balance, thoughtful decision-making, seeing the bigger picture, delaying gratification, optimism, passion, going for what one wants, advocating for the rights of underserved, pursuing financial goals, persistence, self-esteem, healthy perspective, less anxiety, less procrastination.

However, when they are NOT in balance, then an odd thing happens. If the brain is exposed to enough danger (e.g. abusive or traumatic upbringing, invalidating families, neglectful families, overly emeshed families), limbic neural pathways take over and skew executive functioning. In other words, the limbic system begins to regulate executive functioning. The limbic system begins to have a greater say in what emotions are expressed, suppressed; and what behaviors and actions are executed.

As we grow up and no longer face these threats, another funny thing happens.  The limbic system continues to anticipate those same dangers .. and will scan for that danger, even if the danger doesn’t really exist. In other words, it MAKES UP danger. The limbic system then enslaves the frontal cortex to misinterpret, perceive or “create” danger through irrational thoughts, cognitive distortions, over intellectualizing, over analyzing, blaming, shaming, using magical thinking, All or Nothing thinking, learned helplessness, and emotional reactivity.

So what does the brain do to defend itself against the danger it just created for itself?  AVOID!!!!  That’s where procrastination comes into play – it is the avoidance of perceived or invented pain, danger, estimated discomfort/inconvenience, emotional reactivity, false sense of security, everything and anything that the brain itself makes up as a danger or problem, the brain will avoid.

This seems like a hot mess. The good news is this. To “unwire” a “hardwired” brain takes a lot LESS time (and there’s a ton of research that backs this up) then it took to “hardwire” that brain in the first place.

The remedy?  In psychology today, a “third wave” or new frontier of behaviorally based interventions has arrived.  Mindfulness is the key. From that, a new set of skills, mindsets, and talk therapy has sprung forth with promising results.  Acceptance Committment Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, mindfulness Cogitive Behavioral Therapy are the latest in the evolution of psychology.

And the common thread in each of these interventions is based on a classic behavioral premise:  Learn new skills and PRACTICE THEM.

Look through our workshop agenda. If you don’t enroll, you don’t enroll. However, it will give you an idea of the kind of skills CBT, ACT, DBT and mindfulness have to offer.

Practice these and you won’t be practicing procrastination for much longer.


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About David Lim

David (LCSW) is a licensed therapist (LW60177117, State of Washington) and parent coach. He holds a MSW from the University of Southern California, an MBA from the Merage School of Business, University of California, Irvine, and has Bachelor’s Degrees in Communication and General Science from Purdue University. David has a diverse professional background – which includes providing individual psychotherapy, facilitating psychotherapy groups, serving as a parent coach, teaching (adjunct professor at the University of Southern California), business and non-profit leadership in Seattle and Los Angeles.

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