Why moderation is good for us: Do our vices need to be such an all-or-nothing affair?

​As we approach this season of excess in excelsis, why do we try to cut out vices rather than simply cut down? Because, as Plato recognised a long time ago, practising moderation is pretty near impossible. We're hardwired to be all-or-nothing, discovers Nell Frizzell

Nell Frizzell
Monday 14 December 2015 20:55 GMT
Reduction not refusal, moderation over renunciation
Reduction not refusal, moderation over renunciation (Getty)

What I know about moderation could fit on the back of a cigarette paper. So, like many people, I opt for the lure of abstinence. When faced with anaemia from drinking 15 cups of tea a day, I tried, instead of balancing my beverages with the occasional herbal tea, to simply cut out caffeine altogether. Which led to finding myself in bed, in a darkened room, with a splitting headache, moaning gently after just three days. So why do we continue to set ourselves the Herculean task of total self-denial, abnegation and avoidance instead of practising that other ancient Greek model of sophrosyne – temperance, prudence and self-control? Why cut out when we can simply cut down? With Christmas just 10 days away why are so many of us planning for a Dry January rather than a little less wet December? The same goes for taking up something like running: why is it that if we impose a strict regime on ourselves, just a brief shirk – a cold, a holiday – can be enough to make us feel that all is lost and there's no point whipping ourselves back into submission?

Partly, explains clinical psychologist Lauren Callaghan, it is because we simply don't recognise how deeply we've fallen into a binge culture. “That all-or-nothing approach is something that in cognitive behavioural therapy we'd consider problem thinking,” she explains over the phone. “It hangs on absolutes – you either succeed or you fail. And that's often what happens with abstinence; you deny yourself of something completely and then totally blow out once it is reintroduced.”

We're living, points out Callaghan, in a consumer-driven society that depends on these quick-fire responses; these narratives of success and failure, which leave very little room for a healthy middle ground. “Even in relationships, we're taught that if there's a problem we need to either fix it or get a new one.”

Many of us are caught in the net of thinking that says that to enact positive change you must end so-called negative behaviour immediately and completely. “But the problem is that people usually only do this for a short period and, because they're not changing anything else in their lifestyle, it's not going to last,” explains Callaghan. Ah, there's the rub; if we simply deny ourselves pleasure, without making a contingency for long-term change, our brains will register the lack as an obstacle; a problem to be overcome, and crave the reinstatement of the pleasure. “A lot of these behaviours like drinking, sex, drugs, shopping, which are probably harmful in great quantities, actually activate the opioide system of our brain,” says Callaghan, referring to the opioide receptors that are activated by endogenous peptides such as enkephalins, dynorphins and endorphin. “They feel really good and pleasurable, so we get an immediate buzz, which makes them very hard to give up.”

According to the researchers Carlo C DiClemente and J O Prochaska in 1983, there is a six-stage model of changing your behaviour which they, imaginatively, called the Stages of Change. While the model was created in reference specifically to alcoholism, it is a useful tool for understanding any sort of attempt at moderation or – at the extreme end – abstinence. The stages are precontemplation, contemplation, determination, action, maintenance and termination. The tricky area on that list, argues Callaghan, is maintenance. Because that means changing your thinking from success or failure, all-or-nothing, good or bad, to accepting the odd set-back, the occasional relapse or the far less exciting prospect of reduction. That it is better to keep trying than to give up completely.

“The failure bit is your belief – the story you tell yourself to explain any feelings of shame, sadness, anxiety, guilt,” says Callaghan. But if you change that narrative – if you see that drunken Christmas party as a blip rather than a total failure, then you are far more likely to pursue your long-term good intentions. “It's okay to make mistakes,” reassures Callaghan. “It's better to smoke two cigarettes than a whole packet. And a blip doesn't completely undo all your previous good work.” Praise be. It is also, argues Callaghan, important to identify the emotional triggers that may lead to you falling off the wagon. If you drink more when you feel sad, for instance, then you need to learn to recognise sadness as a potential danger; as something that can throw you off-track.

Of course, we know we're going to do this. Come January, we're going to join gyms, give up smoking, quit drinking and put our credit cards in bowls of water in the freezer. But it doesn't have to be this way. “If you're suffering from a serious addiction, then abstinence is probably the best way because it's too dangerous to dabble with moderation,” says Callaghan. “But my general approach for people is, simply, less is more.” Reduction, not refusal; moderation over renunciation; better to walk than fall. She makes it sound so simple.

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