As a child of parents who both had PTSD and addictive behavior, I’m no stranger to addiction. It was in fact my own struggles with addiction and later successes breaking free that led me to become a student of mindfulness meditation and a healing arts professional.
Here are some of the most life-changing insights I’ve learned along the way to my own recovery from multiple addictions:
- What You Focus On Grows: Focusing on abstinence is like trying not to imagine a pink elephant in the room. Count the days of your sobriety and, the higher that number gets, the more you’ll feel the pressure, anxiety and urge to rebel. Especially if you’ve been to 12-step meetings where long-time veterans break down and share their tales of relapse as a warning of how fragile will power can be... When you shift your attention away from “don’t touch the shiny red button” mentality and towards exploring what you need to feel supported and balanced long-term, that’s a much stronger foundation to start from.
- Crave the Feeling, Not the Substance: The addiction under any addiction is the attachment to a way you like to feel (habituation to specific levels of neurotransmitters that make you feel good). Addicts tend to be highly sensitive people who get overwhelmed easily and also feel the effects of different substances (drugs, alcohol & food) more intensely than other people. Those with less stable brain chemistry or underlying depression are far more prone to becoming addicted. The dopamine rush of anticipation (excitement, feeling fully alive) is a key factor in the addictive cycle, kicking off the "seeking" phase of addiction. There's also an adrenaline rush as well as the gratifying blast of serotonin, endorphins, opioids and other feel-good chemicals when the familiar substance kicks in. But what goes up must come down, especially if there is underlying depression. When we use a substance to escape or relax, our natural homeostasis mechanism pushes our resting state (or baseline) lower, requiring more and more of that substance just to feel normal. So how do we seek out the good feelings without our substance of choice? We create new reward pathways in the brain, which over time produce their own dopamine surge of anticipation and boost of happy brain chemistry. There are many ways I help clients discover what their patterns and tendencies are, so learning to "crave the feeling, not the substance" can mean different things to different people.
- Cravings Only Last 9 Minutes: During the most recent seminar I attended on optimizing brain health, the instructor explained that the average craving (for any substance) lasts about 9 minutes. So what do you do when that craving strikes? Set a timer for 10 minutes. Focus your mind deliberately on something other than your addiction—but not just anything. The key is to establish new reward systems, discovering new activities that give you pleasure and tension release. Therapeutic use of essential oils (Aromatherapy) can be helpful as well, as they act upon the limbic system, bypassing the over-thinking “monkey-mind. “ Breathe deeply and feel the soothing full-body effects of inhaling the scents and applying them to your skin. Reading about and experimenting with aromatherapy are great activities to add to your “to do when craving” list.
- Addiction is a Red Flag for a Life out of Balance: We’ve all probably heard about those studies where lab rats are given a lever to press that pumps out an addictive drug. So the story goes, the poor little lab rat will keep pushing the button compulsively to dose steadily on that drug, eventually losing interest in food and drink. It's a shame much fewer of us have heard of a more elegant version of that study, where the lab rats were put in a much larger, enriched environment. Yes, there was still a lever that, when pressed, administered the drug. But there were also many other pleasures to explore in the enriched environment. The rats in these environments, while not completely free of indulgence, had access to multiple sources of pleasure, vs. the “one thing that makes me feel better” tunnel-vision so common in addiction. They actually turned away from the drug-levers and chose to engage in play with other rats, as well as exploring exciting new parts of their artificial world. While a person may not be able to modify their dosage of narcotics, alcohol or cigarettes to more casual/occasional use, cultivating your own “enriched environment” is a much healthier way to approach recovery than “white-knuckling” sobriety.
- It’s About Feeling Connected: The craving for your substance of choice is a desire to “plug into” a state of bliss, escape, comfort or something larger than yourself. If you plug instead into practicing a skill, joining a social group or team, learning something new or doing something that feels meaningful, you may find that after the craving has passed, you’re more interested in continuing along that field of study. Over time you can even turn persistent cravings into cues to practice healthier habits: like daily yoga, inspirational reading, art projects, watching comedy, writing or listening to guided meditations. “Plugging In” can also mean engaging more socially. Addictions tend to thrive in isolation. If you don’t have a large social circle or most of your friends are bad influences, try volunteering for a cause you believe in. You’ll find a sense of meaning and fulfillment helping others (not to mention gratitude). As a volunteer, you’ll also get to know other volunteers, who may become mentors or friends. The more you grow your Circle of Influence to include positive people with healthy habits, the more you create a support system to plug into during times of stress or low will power. No substance can ever replace feeling truly connected. And no amount of white-knuckle will power will ever teach you what it feels like to be truly free from addiction.