The Pizza Strategy: On Harm Reduction

This piece is about pizza, but it also isn’t.

Imagine you’re about to take a bite of some pizza. The crisp crust is hot to the touch. Steam evaporates off the surface while oil bubbles in the little bowls of pepperoni scattered around the pie. You stop just as you bring the slice to your mouth– you remember that pizza burn is the worst! Seriously. Whenever you burn the roof of your mouth from a piping hot slice of pizza it takes forever to heal.

So what do you do? Definitely not shove the thing in your mouth and hope for the best. No. You set the pizza slice down or you blow on it a bit to cool it off. You’re valuing your comfort and safety by reducing your risk of harm.

We engage in harm reducing behaviors every day, though we may not often think about our decisions in these terms. “Harm reduction” is actually a concept developed in the world of addiction treatment. It’s a person-centered approach that empowers users to see themselves as the primary vehicle for changing risky behaviors. The central idea is to meet patients where they are at, and help them progress in the direction of recovery. Evidence-based treatment suggests that harm reduction really does help to decrease drug use and other risky behaviors. Some examples of harm reduction related to substance use include nicotine cessation treatments and drug-needle exchanges.

Though I’m not a substance abuser, I have encountered harm reduction through my own struggles for physical and mental wellness. While I learned the term from my friend Pauline, I have experienced harm reduction therapies in the treatment of my own depression, anxiety, and OCD. Harm reduction therapies have shown successful in the treatment of mental illness and eating disorders in particular. I get it. I think about harm reduction all the time when I consider what to eat or how to exercise. Every time I tell my body to do just this one little exercise instead of laying around on the couch, I’m doing something instead of nothing. I’m reducing harm.

I’ve been thinking a lot about harm reduction this week because it turns out No Spend November is actually really hard. Like, painfully hard. It’s hard because I compulsively shop when I’m bored. Or sad. Or anxious. It’s like buying things helps me calm down– but only for a little bit because then I panic about how much money I just spent. And that sends me down a panic spiral that can so easily turn into a full on anxiety attack.

No Spend November is, by definition, a practice of abstinence. What room is there for harm reduction in this month? How do I find a balance between spending only on necessities and fiscal responsibility that allows me more wiggle room?

It’s not that my values are aligned with consumerism. While Dave Ramsay and other personal finance gurus chastise people who are trying to “keep up with the Benjamins,” I’m over here trying to keep up with my racing thoughts. Yes, I need three more heads of lettuce because one might go bad and I don’t know when I’ll run out. Yes, I need that fleece jacket because it might be cold at night but not cold enough for a coat. Yes, I need that new laptop because my old one might break down any second. Yes, I need those jeans because I only have one pair that fits and I can’t do laundry every day. Yes, I should eat at a restaurant because I don’t know if I’ll get home with enough energy to cook dinner and I don’t want to get light headed. Yes, I need. Yes, I need. Yes, I need.

So what can we do to reduce the harm of overspending in a world where spending is necessary? Do we barter and trade instead? Reduce spending by seeking out sales? Buy secondhand? I’m still thinking on this one, but I’m hoping that No Spend November will give me some answers.


Image from marker_photography on Pixabay.com

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