Author: Jeanette Hu, AMFT
One of the early conversations I have with people who are trying to make change in a compelling behavior is, “What pushes your buttons?” Many times, with an expression of frustration and loss, the person tells me that they don’t have any, that their cravings are totally unpredictable and out of control. It feels like nothing will ever help.
If you are feeling lost in a similar way, you are not alone, and I can tell you with full confidence that your buttons, like everyone else’s, are identifiable. They are not totally out of control, even if it feels that way—in fact they are very much predictable once identified
For us to identify your buttons, we need first to understand what a button is. I found that Charles Duhigg’s habit loop is a great way to help people understand buttons. According to Duhigg, the habit loop is a neurological pattern that consists of three elements: a cue, a routine, and a reward. Once we have repeated a routine enough times, our brains learn to associate the cues that lead to the routine with the reward that the routine produces, then a habit forms. For example, last Christmas, I got a box of chocolates from my sister, so I decided to keep it in the dining room and have a piece every day after dinner. By the time the box of chocolates was gone, a new desert-after-dinner habit had taken hold– my brain has associated the cue of “the full feeling in my tummy” and timing of “after dinner” with the routine of eating chocolate after dinner, reinforced by the rewards of delicious flavor and a sugar rush from the chocolate. Now, every time I finish eating dinner, I automatically crave something sweet.
A button is any cue that your brain has learned to associate with a behavior, and most importantly, the effect that the behavior produces. For example, perhaps your brain has learned to associate the cue of getting off from work with the routine of having a beer and the reward of feeling relaxed. As a result, every time your work day comes to a close, your brain gets the cue and responds accordingly– with the urge for a beer and the sensory pleasure and relaxation it brings. In this case, the cue, or the button, is the act of getting off from work, the routine is having a beer, and the reward is feeling relaxed.
A Button Can Be Anything, Internal or External
External buttons include objects, people, places, and situations associated with the behavior. For example, you may find a lighter makes you miss the cigarette between your fingers, an empty beer can makes your mouth water, or a friend’s place makes you think about the times when you get high. Some people find external buttons more intuitive and easier to identify, whereas internal buttons are trickier since they are cues that cannot be seen with our eyes.
Internal buttons are feelings, emotions, and thoughts. For example, if you habitually use alcohol to avoid feeling anxious, then you may feel the desire to grab a drink whenever you experience the emotion of anxiety, the sensation of butterflies in your stomach, or even the thought of a situation that could make you anxious. Common internal buttons include experiencing emotions, both wanted and unwanted. Substances often help people avoid feeling unwanted emotions and/or enhance wanted emotions. Our brains have an amazing ability to associate all kinds of cues with routines and rewards. Even less intense feelings, such as boredom, tiredness, and hunger, can become associated with the positive effects of substances, and then become cues that trigger cravings and urges to use the substance for relief.
Each individual has a unique set of buttons that their brain has learned to associate with specific substance use/behavior over time. Discovering your buttons is crucial in increasing your control over your behavior, and I’ve created a free handout to help you get started in this process. While it can be easy to get discouraged if it’s difficult at the beginning, or difficult to sustain over time, support is available—discovering buttons takes time and effort, but you don’t have to do it alone.
Sober Curiosity Groups are designed exactly for this purpose—to provide an encouraging, supportive environment for working on behaviors you’d like to change but struggle with. Buttons are a regular topic—one group is devoted entirely to talking about them—and we explore how to help you develop a deeper understanding of your own buttons, to practice identifying them, and to develop better strategies to manage them so they’re not managing you.
Curious about Sober Curiosity Groups? It’s easy to find out more by attending my free workshop this month—you’re invited, and yes it’s really free—but space is limited so please contact me today to reserve yours.