Years ago, I directed the Stress Management Department at the Pain Unit of Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. My first mind-blowing exposure to addiction came when a diabetic patient communicated her physician’s warning that if she did not stop smoking, she risked having her legs amputated. Several days thereafter she was discharged from the pain unit. Three months later she returned to the hospital, this time with stubs for legs. Still she continued to smoke
Addiction is prevalent at all levels of society and is linked to a vast range of disorders such as heart disease, diabetes, asthma, hypertension, certain types of cancer, anxiety, depression and many stress related diseases. For example, women remaining in unhealthy relationships who resort to food, cigarettes, drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms, often find themselves not just psychologically impaired, but physiologically impeded as well.
Interestingly, addiction extends far beyond toxic substances like drugs and alcohol and can include food, shopping, work, gambling, sex, pornography, television, perfectionism or chasing after a youthful appearance, money, or the ideal relationship. Each of us desires pleasure, comfort and inner peace. When reaching for an addiction of choice, one’s objective is to reduce stress, discomfort and suffering and soothe the self.
Eventually these pleasure-seeking (or pain-reducing) behaviors can take on a life of their own and a vicious cycle emerges with the result ultimately causing more pain than pleasure. For example, if you smoke a cigarette you might temporarily reduce your anxiety level, but then the self-deprecation, guilt, or shame that follows may potentially create more suffering, which can lead to the impulse for another cigarette…
Scientists do not yet fully understand what occurs in the brain that ultimately causes addiction in some, but not in others. However, in a comprehensive study led by Dr. Vincent Felitti and Dr. Robert Anda, they discovered strong evidence indicating that children with negative childhood experiences were far more at risk for developing self-destructive and compulsive behaviors as adults that included substance abuse, alcoholism, smoking, eating disorders and depression.
When basic needs are not met, even when trauma is not involved, children and adults may resort to creative outlets to soothe themselves. Healthy relationships and maintaining a strong inner core are the best antidotes to combat addictive behaviors. Strengthening our relationships and inner well-being requires practice and often learning certain key strategies.
When practices such as meditation, breathing and connecting with trustworthy friends are woven into our daily lives, eventually the propensity to addiction can begin to quiet down. That is, we reach for the thing that we really crave, rather than the quick fix.
Any behavior you engage in enlists neural circuitry and becomes etched in the brain. Behaviors that are repeated over time generate strong neurological patterns that are either destructive or supportive to our well-being. Repeating the practice of meditation strengthens certain pathways in the brain that become self-reinforcing. Similarly, repeating the practice of overindulging in negative behaviors such as chronic overeating also becomes self-reinforcing. Meditation however, when practiced regularly, reduces anxiety and enhances an authentic sense of well-being; whereas a negative addiction may temporarily reduce anxiety but it also diminishes a true sense of well-being and self-esteem.
Changing the Pattern of Addiction or Dependency
Change begins with the ability to observe the destruction associated with a certain behavior and becoming aware that a behavior no longer serves you. Knowledge is power and developing the most accurate understanding of addiction or dependency helps with recovery.
For the most part the medical model treats addiction as an acute problem, rather than as a chronic, relapsing medical issue. This is why medical interventions often do not work, or if they do work, the positive outcomes are only temporary.
Alcoholics Anonymous (or OA, GA, NA, SA) has been shown to be effective for those willing to build their lives around “being in recovery.” These programs work, although sadly more than 80 percent of those identified as struggling with addiction do not go into programs or receive any formal treatment. I have also observed that programs like AA work for those who attend regularly, but their addictions or dependencies become transferred over to “the program.”
Counting 1 year, 2,321 days, 22 hours, since one’s last drink or cigarette seems to me like another form of addiction. Learning to authentically soothe one’s self and connect with others seems like the most gratifying and long lasting tonic of all. The benefit of AA and similar programs comes in the form of newly fostered relationships with fellow meeting attendees and sponsors.
Struggling with addiction means that you are in the process of recovery and have reason to be hopeful. The more times you try to liberate yourself from an addiction the more likely you are to succeed. Learning and internalizing the strategies that support you in feeling more comfortable in your own skin as in mindfulness practices and relationship building, are the most promising routes to take in a recovery program. These are skills that take time and practice to develop. When one slips or fails in the recovery from this chronic condition the key is to get back to one’s practice in building core strength and healthy relationships.
Keys to Changing the Pattern of Addiction
• Understand that this behavior is no longer serving you.
• Commit to changing the behavior, knowing that the choice is self-destructive.
• Forgive yourself for past behavior so that you can move forward in your life.
• Get support while you are going through the ‘recovery process’, which means building healthy relationships that last.
• Commit to connecting with others when you feel overwhelmed, anxious, sad or lonely.
• Practice mindfulness exercises like meditation, prayer, affirmations, abdominal breathing etc.
•Set clear intentions for yourself in the future that support your goals and dreams.
Take steps every day towards reaching your potential, all the while practicing your mindfulness strategies and building in the support of others. This is especially necessary when you have slipped back into the addictive behavior.
Know that slipping back into old patterns of behavior is often part of the process. However, the more times you try to change or extinguish a behavior, the more likely you are to succeed. Find activities that engage your mind and body in compelling ways. Most importantly surround yourself with people who support you and your efforts to improve the quality of your life. Remember that fostering healthy, authentic connections with others is the best antidote for the need to pursue the illusive, unreliable, unpredictable balm found in the addictive object.