Last week, in our blog on common food cravings, we talked about how nutritional deficiencies, disease and other circumstances can lead to cravings for particular types of food. Today we will talk about more serious cravings and addictions, including addiction to food (anorexia, bulimia and most obesity), sex, gambling, alcohol and drugs.
All of these addictions have a psychological component and arise in the mind. Genetics, culture and other environmental factors also strongly influence the rise of these addictions. Addictions can have devastating consequences for individuals, families and society and are very prevalent in most parts of the world. In the United States alone, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year dealing with the consequences of addiction and many lives are lost, families ripped apart and hopes shattered because of the cycle of addiction.
While some addictions are more disruptive than others, they all have negative consequences. While most of the readers in our audience are concerned with food cravings, emotional eating or food disorders/addictions, most addictions have a common cause, and a common cure.
Although humans, like most animals, are “creatures of habit”, humans have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to take initiative, be spontaneous, connect similar experiences and meet our objectives. Addicts however, often find themselves acting out old patterns as opposed to making rational choices in order to reach their objectives.
Some ask whether addiction is a disease or a choice – the answer to both questions is yes. As Dr. Omar Manejwala states in his book, Craving, Why We Can’t Seem to Get Enough, “addiction is a disease of choice”.
Interestingly, while most mistakenly believe that addicts do what they do in order to “feel good”, most addicts “use” in order to “feel normal”. They are stuck in a compulsive cycle of feeling isolated, self-indulgence, self-hatred (SHAME & GUILT) and self-concealment. Shame is the great emotional wall, and is especially prevalent in our western society where, because we try to suppress shame, many of us have no emotional outlet, and are thus more likely to experience shame. Many of us easily recognize shame in someone who expresses self-pity, but how many of us see it in the man (or woman) with the tough and detached exterior?
Since we can do nothing about our genetics (nature), we need to do everything we can to assure that we care for our mind the best we can (nurture). The brain has great plasticity and research shows that new neurons and neural connections can be formed at any age. Brains toxins (such as excessive alcohol) can kill brain cells, and thus should be avoided, at least in excess. Of course, anyone with alcohol addiction should avoid all alcohol.
Thoughts, actions and experiences also affect the brain and can either build or destroy neurons, depending on the stimulus and our reaction to it. Significant evidence shows that positive, happy, and peaceful thoughts not only heal the endocrine system (hormones), but also positively stimulate the mind. Positive and happy people are better able to handle stress and make healthier choices. They are more sociable and thus more easily recruit champions to their cause.
Our actions also shape our brains, so be active, stimulate the mind in healthy ways, get out and exercise, stay physically active and be social. Communicate with others, find healthy intimacy, be mindful of and involved in the world around you.
Finally, our experiences greatly shape our minds. Whether they are positive or negative, they will determine how our brains evolve and impact who you are. Abuse, neglect and stress all have a significant and often lasting influence on the mind and psyche. It goes without saying that we should never abuse our children (physically, emotionally or in any other way), but should show them unconditional love in our communication, actions and touch. We know that neglected infants who are not given physical interaction/stimulus fail to thrive and can actually die. There is a reason that we have expressions such as “she died of a broken heart”, and we all need love, attention and touch to survive.
We also know that physical, mental and emotional trauma, such as is experienced by soldiers or victims of abuse (post-traumatic stress disorder) can significantly negatively influence these individuals.
But what do we do to heal when we have experienced abuse or trauma? There is a way to heal, and that is what we will discuss next.
Interestingly, while it makes sense that victims of abuse would feel anger, resentment and sadness, they are often more likely to feel guilt, shame and unworthiness. Many find it hard to deal with the fact that a loved one would abuse them and take this to mean that they are unlovable or broken in some way. This thinking is what leads to feelings of guilt (I must have done something wrong) and eventually shame (I am obviously bad).
The key to neutralizing shame is love and joy! In order to feel loved and have joy, a cycle of belonging, progression, self-esteem and self-disclosure is needed to deter addictive behavior and heal our minds and bodies.
The most important first steps toward overcoming addiction are:
How do we do this safely and what communities are best? Let’s look at specific things that we can do to heal addiction, overcome shame and find joy:
This is quite a list and may seem daunting at first, but everything worthwhile takes effort.
Find a Group:
The first thing that we should do is to reach out and find a group of like-minded individuals who can support us.
This can be a class or group found through your healthcare program, one of the very popular and effective 12-step groups, or even a group of individuals you find on meetup.com or a similar popular site. The important thing is to find a group that is dedicated to healing addiction.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be led by a certified provider, but it should either be a proven program or have a structured and supportive format. Being part of an effective and dedicated group should be able to help support you to learn and implement all of the steps in the list above. Listening to others who have similar experiences as yourself and realizing that “we aren’t alone” is especially powerful. Seeing others who have conquered the same challenges that we have helps us feel as if we belong and gives us a sense of hope.
Some individuals, especially those who have had significant past trauma, may need to seek professional therapy as well as attending a group, or they may need find healing in individual therapy first and attend a group later.
It is important that you feel safe sharing your secrets and that you can get the support that you need after opening old wounds. Just as you would want a trained professional treating a physical injury, emotional injury deserves the same attention.
If you join one of the many 12-step groups, you will very likely have a chance to find a sponsor (and eventually sponsor someone else). Your sponsor is someone that gets to know you and helps you work the steps and be honest in your step work. They help you see the patterns you need to change, and this is something you can’t do alone.
If you are not in a 12-step program, you will want to find someone who you can be accountable to. Having someone that you are accountable to not only provides you with your very own 24/7 support system, but can provide the motivation needed for you to stay honest with yourself.
Inventory & Change Your Behaviors:
It is important that you understand your specific addictive behaviors and that you see and do things differently than you have in the past. Part of this is being honest with yourself and others, but obviously we cannot change what we don’t know or understand. This is yet another reason that being active with a group is important. Those who have already done their healing work understand well their own addictive behaviors and will support you to see your own.
A trained therapist can also help us to understand the behaviors and patterns that are keeping us stuck in our addiction and to learn new ways of being and acting. Be sure to be open and teachable (easier said than done) and don’t fool yourself into believing that you are immune to relapse. Often it is when things are going well that we are most at risk of relapsing.
Be aware of your Apparently Irrelevant Decisions (AIDs), or those choices that you make that lead you to use. Although in the moment you don’t think they have any connection, these often unconscious decisions can set us up for failure (i.e. going shopping when you are hungry).
Here are some helpful tips and healthy habits that will make you more aware of your AIDs:
Meditation and/or a spiritual practice allow us to take time and clear our minds. Not only does this change our physiology, but it is a practice in patience and persistence. There are many great books, videos, organizations, etc. from which you can learn a meditative or spiritual practice that resonates for you.
When we reach out and help others we stop thinking about ourselves and our problems. Interestingly, helping others gives us a sense of purpose, motivates us and helps us to heal. Along with helping others, practice feeling and expressing genuine love for others. The more you practice this and the more you do for others the more natural it will become. Stephen Post states the benefits of altruism clearly in his book The Hidden Gifts of Helping: How the Power of Giving, Compassion and Hope Can Get Us Through Hard Times
Shame (guilt) is one of the most self-defeating emotions we can feel. It is normal for us to feel regret and disappointment and even to feel remorse for our behavior. However, when we perseverate on negative thoughts and the compulsive cycle of isolation, self-indulgence, self-hatred and concealment, we bury ourselves in shame and the belief that we are undeserving.
Nothing is further from the truth however, and by continuing this dynamic we make life worse for ourselves and everyone around us. When we choose to move away from our past and to create a new future, we are able to bring joy and goodness into our lives and the lives of those around us. Dr James Bradshaw has an amazing book for those healing from shame entitled Healing the Shame that Binds You that can be purchased here:
I hope that no matter what addiction(s) you may have or how severely it affects you, that you will reach out to others for support, be social, join a group of like-minded individuals, assist and love others, and heal whatever it is that may be limiting your full potential.
Please feel free to contact any of us here at Let Wellness Begin if you need further resources or support. Our staff members have decades of experience working with addicts and can support you along your path of healing.