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Abstinence vs Moderation

Posted By: Marc F. Kern, Ph.D.

It's natural to want to strive for the moderation of our habits rather than total abstinence. I can't imagine anyone indulging in their unhealthy habit of choice and not deriving some compelling benefits. But the fact is, abstinence is substantially easier to achieve.

When someone first enters my care for treatment of habits that should be stopped altogether, one of the first questions I ask is, "Do you want to stop your habit entirely, or would you rather practice moderation?"

With rare exception, I hear an immediate, "I sure would like to be able to smoke or drink occasionally, like other people." or "I wish I could learn to gamble/exercise/eat/shop moderately and less often, like normal people do."

Others say, "My problem is with street drugs , not booze, so why does everyone tell me that I have to stop drinking?

It's natural to want to strive for the moderation of our habits rather than total abstinence. I can't imagine anyone indulging in their unhealthy habit of choice and not deriving some compelling benefits.

But the fact is, abstinence is substantially easier to achieve. If you doubt that, just think about all the times you were able to go on a very strict and rigid diet, or stop smoking, or abstain from alcohol, gambling or drugs -- only to find that once you started drinking occasionally, or cheating on your diet, or borrowing cigarettes, you soon ended up right back where you started.

It has become a cliché, but it's still more than a good joke: "I can quit any time I want. I've done it thousands of times!"

Of course, the issue of moderation is not subject to discussion when your habits involve eating, spending, or relationships. With activities like these, moderation is the only option.

What kind of goals should you set if your habit doesn't involve food or life sustaining activities? Such behaviors include, but are not limited to: gambling, workaholism, over spending, hyper-sexuality, obsessions with pornography, excessive exercising, hypochondria and destructive relationships.

These behavioral unhealthy habits need to be understood in the same way as addictions to psycho-active substances. While they appear to be judged by society much less harshly, they involve the same processes and you will need to use the same techniques to restore balance to your life.

You can begin by making a list of who you are, items that describe you in every detail. Now, make another list leaving out all your bad habits and see what potential for wonderful accomplishments you possess.

You will notice that YOU are NOT your bad habit! Develop your new life with activities that leave out, as much as possible, the stimulus that makes you want to indulge in your unhealthy habits. If you are in situations that motivate you to indulge in your unhealthy habit, and you want to try to moderate the habit, be sure that you are with a group of people who will support you and motivate you to stay within your pre-set limit of moderation.

It is usually not wise to try to moderate your habit when you are alone. You will find it much more difficult to draw the line and stop by yourself.

I would also like to remind anyone who is considering moderate alcohol use of a few additional points. First, and most importantly, it is generally agreed by most experts today that moderation consists of two drinks per day for men and one drink a day for women.

If you find yourself saying, "That's no fun!" "I can't even get high on one or two drinks," then perhaps moderation really isn't for you.

Anything over these amounts is considered to be unhealthful by the medical community. Even these levels may be too much for some individuals. But if keeping alcohol in your life is still your goal, try it. If it works and you can keep your intake truly moderate, then continue.

On the other hand, if you continue to fall back into your old habits, give yourself a break, take control and stop it completely.

If it is disturbing to you to think about not having another drink for the rest of your life, it might be helpful to abstain for three to six months before attempting moderation.

This strategy serves several purposes. One, it can reduce your alcohol tolerance so that when you do resume drinking, a smaller amount will give you the desired effect.

Secondly, during the months of abstinence, you will build self-confidence and learn new ways of coping with stress, anxiety, loneliness, and boredom.

Thirdly, you may find that after a few months of abstinence, you feel so healthy and so good about yourself, that you will decide not to risk your new sense of well being by indulging at all.

At the very least, with several months of sobriety under your belt, you can't help noticing by stark contrast any impairment caused by your resumed drinking.

Remember, this is your life, and you have the power to make it better or worse.

Whatever habit it is you wish to change, you need to take sole responsibility. Give yourself all the chances you need to succeed. Just the stress of coping with an unhealthy habit wears the body and the mind down day-by-day.

So, engage yourself, don't indulge yourself.

Remember, Don't Kill Yourself, Skill Yourself!

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