Understanding Addiction

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We don’t need a complete, clinical understanding of addiction to recover, but we do need to understand enough to become equipped to fight and overcome it.  This knowledge can help demystify some of the attendant behaviors and emotions, and give us valuable information about our enemy.  We need to know how addiction works within us, where we are weak and where we are strong, and how to build a sustainable recovery plan.

Stephanie Brown PhD states, Addiction is loss of control.  Addiction is the inability to predictably and consistently stop drinking, using drugs, eating, gambling, acting out sexually or other behaviors once started.  Addiction is more than a behavior.    Addiction starts with an emotional attachment, or relationship if you will.  An emotional bond is formed to alcohol, prescription drugs, food, gambling, etc., that becomes a compulsive attachment.  He or she cannot do without it.  The object of the addiction becomes the best friend, lover, and the demon that will destroy the addict.  Stated another way, addiction becomes a deep loss of self.

Addiction can occur in whatever generates significant mood alteration. (Brown, 2006)  This means not only drugs and alcohol can be the culprits, but the self nurturing of food, the thrill of gambling, or the arousal of sex can also initiate addiction within us.   The emotional bond is formed through the conditioning process that takes place in the emotional center of our brain.

Our brain’s emotional center is charged with finding solutions to our human needs.  Emotions were given to us to guide us in meeting those needs.  The center is always looking for ways to comfort difficult feelings. The healthy way to do that is in our relationships with others, where we can love and be loved, and feel importance and accomplishment.   If this proves unsuccessful, some turn to counterfeit relationships that offer temporary comfort, but not fulfillment.  When we chose to be comforted from difficult feelings by using our drug of choice, the emotional bond or connection between the feeling and acting out is reinforced or strengthened.  The process clinicians call conditioning.  When the bond is sufficiently strong, whenever the emotional center feels the need or emotion, an urge is sent out to indulge in our drug of choice.

Upon continued use and therefore conditioning, the connection between our originating emotion and our form of acting out is strengthened to the point that the urge becomes a compulsion.  The ante has been raised at this point.  At the compulsive stage of our use, we find that the urge to use is now stronger than our will to resist.  Our control of self, the ability to think and chose our reaction has been impaired, hijacked by the emotional center.  It has gained the ability to out vote, and begins to control/overrule, the thinking part of our brain.  We can no longer just say no.  We have compromised our freedom to choose, and we are in trouble; big trouble.

Part of the emotional center’s purpose is to handle emergencies.  If we put our hand on the hot stove, it is not the thinking part of our brain that tells us to move our hand, rather, it is the emotional center.  Thinking is bypassed because of the emergency nature of the situation.  In such instance, the emotional center can trump the rest of the brain to protect us from danger. Our thinking brain suspends control or steps aside until the emergency has passed. It keeps us safe in many of life’s threatening situations.  It also sets up the possibility of addiction.

If our emotional center runs amuck, and begins using it’s trumping ability to indulge in our drug of choice to dysfunctionally try to meet and satisfy the needs within us, and our conditioning reaches the level of compulsion, we have compromised the system. It no longer functions as intended.  Our emotional center has hijacked the system.  When we feel the activating emotion we will act out, even if we do not want to.  This manifests when the addict says, “I am not going to use, I am not going to use, I am not going to use,” just before he uses.  At this stage the emotional center is calling the shots and we have a compulsion and are well on our way to addiction.

Patrick Carnes PhD, in his book Don’t Call it Love, presents the following description of the addictive process: At some point, excessive use becomes compulsive use. The highs become so compelling that the person loses control.  Usually the loss of control means serious consequences, yet the highs remain so compelling that the addict starts to distort, ignore or lose contact with reality.  The addiction now regulates the emotional life of the addict.  The addict cannot act “normal” without the high.  Nor can the addict deal with stressors without the maladaptive response of the addiction.  The inherent shamefulness of the addict brings on self destructive shame cycles, in which the addict’s efforts to stop seem only to intensify the failures.  The brain achieves a new neuro-chemical imbalance, which can only be relieved by compulsive use.  The addict ends up isolated and alienated.

Once this point is reached. Addicts cannot undo all the damage even with help.  Significant shifts have occurred which leave them forever vulnerable to their addiction.  Compulsive use always remains an option. (Carnes,1992)

This is where others, normies that have never felt the power of compulsion, struggle to understand.  “Why can’t you just walk away?” they ask.  In their lives it has always worked.  “If you keep drinking, your going to lose your family–in heavens name, why can’t you stop?”  It seems so simple.  Pretty cut and dry.  When the addict can’t walk away, judgements get made. ”You must be really weak, don’t you love your family?  Why are you throwing your life away?”

Part of the struggle is a matter of intensity for the addict.  Because of the conditioning process, urges for the normie might rate a 2.2 on the emotional Richter scale.  To a normie, no big deal.  For the addict, that same urge, after years of conditioning, feels like 7.5 plus.  The compulsion is a major emotional event, (an emotional storm if you will) and can not simply be ignored.  We feel compelled to act and have little defense against it.

2 Responses to Understanding Addiction

  1. B says:

    Needs and Emotions. Understanding how these become intertwined with the addiction seems to be the overarching theme in your book and other literature. I really connected with John Bradshaw’s “Healing the Shame that Binds You”, especially where he says that the brain’s needs center becomes programmed by an addiction to believe that every core human need, whether physiological or emotional, can be met by the addictive behavior, activity, or substance. I have found this to be so true for myself. H.A.L.T. (hungry, angry, lonely, tired) or B.L.A.S.T. (bore, lonely, angry, stressed, tired) are all ways of describing this principle. I know it is true for myself and my addiction. When I feel triggered, making an assessment of my needs can often help alleviate the compulsion. Sometimes, when my brain says I need to be sexual (as I am a sex addict), sometimes I just need to eat food! Or when I am tired, sometimes it is as simple as just telling my brain that no, actually I am just tired and need to rest; that sex is not the answer to fulfilling this need. However, as was stated above, mindfulness and heightened levels of awareness are required to be able to identify the underlying emotions and needs which are fueling the addiction. Obtaining this awareness is the trick and it doesn’t always come easily for some of us. I know I thought that I didn’t have a single problem and that I just had anxiety which would drive me to my addiction. Well, it is true that anxiety (fear) played a huge role in my addictive cycle, but there were a number of other emotions I was completely unaware of which I experienced regularly, almost unconsciously, such as shame, guilt, anger, and sadness, most of which I automatically repressed and had no idea they were all getting stuffed inside of me, just needing to be released. It takes time to develop awareness, but it is worth every ounce of effort to develop it and increase it over time!

    • roger says:

      Thank you for your insights. It is pretty interesting when we can look back and use our hindsight to analyze what we thought and what reality really was. Congratulations on where you are keep it up!

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