“I Already ate Half a Box of Cookies, I Might As Well Eat Them All”

                If you’ve ever tried to change your diet, you’ve probably experienced a situation like the following:   You’re committed to pursuing a healthy lifestyle and as part of that commitment you’ve decided to reduce the amount of processed sugar you eat. It’s been tough, but over several weeks you’ve steadily decreased it. Then, you’re invited to a friend’s birthday party. At this party there are delicious, decadent cupcakes. Everyone’s enjoying themselves eating those lovely cupcakes. Your friend asks you if you want one and you say…”Yes.” You think, “One won’t hurt! It’s a celebration.” So, you eat a cupcake. If you stopped right there, after this initial slip, it wouldn’t be a big deal. You could just go back to your plan for eating healthy. But you don’t. Before you know it, you eat a second cupcake, drink 2 cups of sparkling orange juice, and eat a bunch of candy.

You are not alone in having this experience. Time and again I hear friends and associates talk about how they ate a whole loaf of bread (those who were on the Atkins diet), ate a whole box of cookies (those on just about any diet), or ordered the Grande size nachos when they were out at a happy hour (I, myself have been guilty of ordering a mountain of nachos even though I highly value a healthy lifestyle). An interesting phenomenon can occur after this initial slip into old habits (eating or other habits we’re trying to change). This occurs so frequently that researchers have studied it and clinicians have come up with strategies to combat it. The phenomenon I’m describing is called the Abstinence Violation Effect.

Abstinence what?

                The Abstinence Violation Effect (abbreviated AVE) occurs when a person lapses, or slips, into an old pattern of behavior and then continues this pattern of behavior beyond the initial slip. Let’s come back to our cupcake example to more closely examine AVE. You experienced a lapse when you ate the first cupcake (you violated your commitment to a reduced sugar diet). You then ate a whole bunch of things loaded with sugar following your initial lapse. What just happened? When we violate a commitment we’ve made to change our behavior, an interesting combination of thoughts and feelings occurs. You might have thoughts like, “well, I already had one, might as well have another!” or “I just blew my diet so it’s ruined and it doesn’t matter what I eat now, because I already blew it.” We may also feel guilt, shame, or anxiety during or after our initial slip. This pattern of negative feelings, thoughts related to our initial slip (e.g., “I blew it, might as well forego the rest of my diet today”), and actions (e.g., eating another cupcake, drinking 2 cups of juice, and eating a bunch of candy) make up the Abstinence Violation Effect.

The Abstinence Violation Effect relates to any kind of habit change

                This effect applies to anyone who is trying to break a habit. That habit could relate to patterns of eating, as in the example above, or it can relate to trying to exercise more, to stop biting your finger nails, or reducing drug or alcohol use. For people who are trying to stop or cut back on drug or alcohol use,  the abstinence violation effect can turn an initial slip (e.g., one drink after a period of sobriety), into a full-blown relapse (i.e., going back to old patterns of drinking or using). The consequences of AVE can be especially high for individuals with addictions and can lead to a cycle of multiple relapses or accidental overdose.

What can I do when I experience a slip? Practical tips for combating the AVE.

                Being aware that the Abstinence Violation Effect (AVE) occurs is your first step in combating it. Armed with this knowledge you can develop strategies to help you avoid or reduce the impact of AVE. Some helpful strategies for AVE include :

  • Prepare yourself for high-risk situations (e.g., places where an initial slip may occur, such as birthday parties when you are on a diet) by making a plan to reduce or avoid triggers for your old behavior. For example, you can eat before you go to the party so you are too full to eat a cupcake. You can also reduce the amount of sugar you eat during the day of the party so you can have part or all of a cupcake without going over your allotted amount of daily sugar. You can speak with your partner or friend and enlist them to help you cope with temptation when at the party. Another idea is to tell your friend at the party about your commitment and how she can help support you (e.g., not offer you cake) before the cake comes out.
  • Remind yourself of your values related to why you are changing your behavior. For example, you might remind yourself of your values (why you are making the change in your life) on a daily basis by writing them down and placing them in strategic places (the fridge, your wallet, your pocket). You can set a reminder on your phone that helps you remember your values (e.g., a picture of your kids to remind you that you are committed to a healthy lifestyle so you can be around longer).
  • Encourage yourself if you do slip. Remind yourself that many people slip when making lifestyle changes; in fact, slipping is the norm! Congratulate yourself on the changes that you have made so far and tell yourself that one slip (or even many slips) does not mean that all the time and efforts you’ve made are worthless. Remind yourself that you can recover from a slip and that you are capable of recovering from it. Beating yourself up about slipping up is not.
  • Come up with a plan for how you will recover from your slip-up. Think of concrete steps you can take to get back on track following a lapse and write these down on a piece of paper. Put this paper in a place where you can easily access it.

A slip does not need to be the end of your pursuit of positive life changes, whether it is changing your diet or cutting back or stopping use of drugs or alcohol. By being aware of the Abstinence Violation Effect and developing strategies to combat it, you can remain on or quickly return to your path of valued living.