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How Vietnam War Veterans Broke Their Heroin Addictions

In 1971, as the Vietnam War was heading into its sixteenth year, the American public became aware of a serious drug addiction among its troops. It was found that 35 percent of service members in Vietnam had tried heroin and as many as 20 percent were addicted.

The discovery led to the creation of the Special Action Office of Drug Abuse Prevention. This program promoted prevention and rehabilitation as it tracked the heroin-addicted service members when they returned home.

One of the researches overseeing this program (Lee Robins) found that only 5 percent of those service members who had returned home, became re-addicted within a year. What’s maybe even more surprising is that only 12 percent relapsed within three years after returning home!

In other words, nine out of ten soldiers who used heroin in Vietnam eliminated their addiction nearly overnight. This finding totally upended the accepted beliefs surrounding addiction recovery.

To Change Your Behavior, Change Your Environment

In the 1970’s, heroin addiction was considered to be a permanent and irreversible condition. What Dr. Robins revealed was that addictions could spontaneously dissolve if there was a radical change in the environment.

In Vietnam, soldiers spent all day surrounded by cues triggering heroin use: it was easy to access, they were engulfed by the constant stress of war, they built friendships with fellow soldiers who were also heroin users, and they were thousands of miles from home.

Once a soldier returned to the United States, though, he found himself in an environment devoid of those triggers. When the context changed, so did the habit.

Compare this situation to that of a typical drug user. Someone becomes addicted at home or with friends, goes to a clinic to get clean—which is devoid of all the environmental stimuli that prompt their habit—then returns to their old neighborhood with all of their previous cues that caused them to get addicted in the first place.

It’s no wonder that usually you see numbers that are the exact opposite of those in the Vietnam study. Typically, 90 percent of heroin users become re-addicted once they return home from rehab.

So What About You?

Yesterday I talked about The Habit Loop: Cue -> Craving -> Response -> Reward.

What’s funny is just last week, I noticed a bad habit that I was developing without even realizing it. Over the past few months I’ve been snacking on frozen chocolate chips that Karli puts in the freezer and eating them at night. After reading about the Habit Loop, I realized this was my routine:

Cue: I finish washing the dishes.

Craving: I want some chocolate chips.

Response: I open the freezer.

Reward: I eat the chocolate chips.

I didn’t realize this, however, until there were no more chocolate chips. I finished the dishes last week, opened the freezer, and the chocolate chips were gone!

What surprised me even more is that I continued to open the freezer every night after doing the dishes without even thinking about it! It wasn’t until last night that I finished the dishes and didn’t think about opening the freezer.

Karli stopped buying chocolate chips and my environment changed. Violá! Bad habit broken.

If you want to break a habit, change your environment. If individuals addicted to heroin can do it, so can you with your sugar-addictions!


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