Recovery From Addiction Through Basic Mindfulness

Introduction

Currently, there is no clear consensus among health professionals in precisely defining addiction. Historically, it has been defined narrowly only in relation to psychoactive substances, such as alcohol, tobacco, and other drugs.

Increasingly in recent years, however, many dysfunctional behavioral patterns that are not specifically substance-based are viewed by many professionals also as “addictions.” Some common examples are addictions to: gambling, food, sex, pornography, computers, video games, watching TV, dieting, internet use, work, exercise, shopping, cutting/burning oneself, etc.

A common unifying theme with the victims of all of these disorders is how powerfully and repetitively they are internally driven to engage in the particular activity that defines their addiction.

There is, moreover, growing evidence from neuroscience research that the neurophysiology of ALL addictive disorders, whether substance-based or behavioral, is very similar in many ways. Endorphins (or endogenous morphine), for example, as well as key transmitter substances such as dopamine, epinephrine, and serotonin are common mediating factors in all of these disorders.

The prevalence of these addictions in the modern world is staggeringly high. In the U.S. alone 15.1 million people are addicted to alcohol, 4 million to drugs, and over 20% of the population is still addicted to tobacco.

Although there is no reliable way to estimate the total prevalence of all the behavioral addictions, there is abundant evidence that they are extremely common. As a matter of fact, there are probably very few people alive today who are not subject to some form of addictive behavior.

In this regard, answering the following question with complete honesty will help you determine if you may be one of them: Do I ever feel driven to engage in any form of behavior that I personally regard as self-defeating or harmful and about which I later feel guilt, shame, embarrassment and/or remorse to some degree?

A New Way to Understand Addictions

The following formulation, although grossly oversimplified in many ways, is intended to help provide an initial rough framework for understanding how Basic Mindfulness offers a highly effective way to deconstruct the brain/mind formations that underlie all addictive behaviors.

Like all other creatures on this planet, humans universally tend to seek pleasure and to avoid or escape from pain. Although these two extremely strong genetic instincts have been and continue to be essential to survival, they are also the extremely fertile common ground in which all addictive behaviors become strongly rooted and sustained.

The basic habit patterns that comprise the core of these addictions start developing out of these intrinsic propensities in a very natural and lawful way even before we are born and continue to proliferate from that point onward.

The twin principles that govern their natural initial development can be stated quite simply, although they progressively evolve into highly complex and subtle brain/mind processes that are much more challenging to understand.

Principle #1: Whenever we do anything that is followed by an increase in subjective pleasure or satisfaction, the probability that we will do it again increases to some degree. In general, the probability of recurrence of such a behavior is proportional to the degree of pleasure/satisfaction experienced.

Each subsequent repetition of this particular sequence further increases the probability of its future recurrence or its “habit strength.” As it continues to develop, it will tend to become increasingly streamlined or “automatic,” requiring progressively less conscious awareness and/or intentionality for its occurrence. An automatic habit pattern that has developed primarily in this way will be referred to here as a pleasure-seeking reaction.

Principle #2: Whenever we do anything that is followed by a decrease in subjective physical/emotional pain, discomfort or dissatisfaction, the probability that we will do it again also increases slightly. Again, this increment in the probability of recurrence is generally proportional to the degree of reduction in subjective pain/dissatisfaction that is experienced.

Each subsequent repetition of this sequence similarly increases the probability of its future recurrence or its “habit strength.” As this happens, it will also become progressively more automatic as described above. This type of automatic habit pattern will be referred to here as a terminating reaction.

As used above, the words, “do anything,” refer to external behaviors as well as to their internal representations -i.e., the emotional feelings, mental imagery and/or self-talk to which they give rise. Typically, these internal representations are strongly linked to the external behavioral reactions from which they are derived and thus become a key part of the overall reactive pattern. Very commonly, they also play an important part in activating the external behavioral part of the reaction.

For example, thinking about/imaging a piece of chocolate cake in the refrigerator will tend to activate the corresponding pleasure-seeking reaction of actually eating it. Similarly, if you have a headache, your terminating reaction of taking an aspirin is highly likely to be preceded by thinking, for example, “I need an aspirin,” and/or an image of taking one and getting relief.

As nearly everyone knows from much personal experience, reliving a pleasure-seeking reaction in imagery tends to activate–at least to some degree-subtle feelings of pleasure; conversely, reliving a terminating reaction in imagery similarly tends to activate subtle feelings of getting relief from pain/discomfort. The same is true of anticipatory imagery and/or engaging in internal self-talk about future occurrences of pleasure or pain.

For example, someone experiencing a lot of stress at work may repeatedly imagine what she is going to do when the weekend comes and/or think repetitiously, “I can hardly wait to….” Both of these internal processes can be understood as subtle, garden-variety internal terminating reactions. It’s very important to understand that they also commonly occur very automatically, without any conscious awareness.

Within this framework, then, an addictive behavior can be defined as any pleasure-seeking reaction, terminating reaction, or a combination of both that is significantly harmful to oneself and/or others and that has become sufficiently strong and automatic that it effectively overrides-at least on some occasions– one’s intentionally conscious efforts to suppress or control it.

By this definition, all addictions cause pain-physical and/or emotional; and since pain tends to activate automatic terminating reactions, this sets up a self-perpetuating process or “vicious circle.”

Consider, for example, an alcoholic who chronically worries about how to pay his bills and who has had a highly stressful week at work. Predictably, this triggers a strong terminating reaction of stopping for “happy hour” at his favorite bar, where he ends up getting drunk, spending a large part of his paycheck, and staying until the bar closes.

His wife, expecting him to come home to participate in a special birthday celebration for one of their children, becomes very emotionally upset, as do all of the children. They are traumatized further by the loud argument that ensues between their parents after he finally gets home.

When he wakes up the next morning, he has a terrible hangover and is filled with intense guilt, shame, and self-loathing about what he has done. His baseline level of emotional pain, which he temporarily terminated through ingesting a large amount of alcohol, has now increased tremendously-far above its original high base level.

Given this level of pain, it is extremely likely that the same terminating reaction will be quickly reactivated, setting off another addictive round in this tragically vicious circle.

How Basic Mindfulness Fosters Recovery from Addiction

Mindfulness meditation was originally discovered in India over 25 centuries ago by a young prince named Siddhartha Gautama, who later became known as the Buddha. He made this discovery after five years of intensively searching for an effective way to end suffering. He subsequently spent 40 years teaching this method to his many followers. Since then it has been practiced ardently by hundreds of millions of people-mainly in Asian countries.

Since it was successfully introduced into Western countries a few short decades ago, it has quickly merged into the cultural mainstream-especially in areas such as psychology, medicine, education, and generalized personal development. At this point, it has also become a very hot topic in Neuroscience research.

A Definition of Basic Mindfulness

Basic Mindfulness, as I will refer to it here, consists of three powerful interrelated mental skills:

1) Concentration power;

2) sensory clarity; and

3) equanimity.

With adequate guidance and through disciplined practice, this skill set can be developed to a very high degree by nearly anyone. Once acquired, it can be applied effectively to every area of one’s life.

In particular, it is a means second to none for enhancing conscious awareness and thus become liberated from a wide array of highly automatic and unskillful habit patterns-which, very importantly, includes all addictions. Likewise, it provides a way to enjoy all of life’s pleasures much more fully, while also offering a very powerful means of coping with all forms of physical and mental pain.

Here are brief definitions of the three sub-skills of Basic Mindfulness:

Concentration power is defined simply as the ability to attend selectively and consistently to whatever you consider as relevant at any given time.

Sensory clarity consists in being consciously aware of, and perceiving clearly, all of the endlessly changing external and internal sensory events to which we are subject continuously.

Very importantly, this includes the subtle internal mental states mentioned previously that are incorporated into pleasure-seeking and terminating reactions. These transient states typically occur very automatically and with little or no conscious awareness.

Without mindfulness training, an average person will not perceive them clearly for what they are, but rather will typically experience them as a powerful and highly compelling urge to behave addictively in order to get relief. As a result, then, they commonly give rise to highly automatic and unskillful behavioral reactions.

These internal states fall into three basic categories:

1) Emotional feelings in the body;

2) mental imagery; and

3) verbal thinking

Equanimity entails letting go of negative judgments about what you are experiencing and consciously replacing them with an attitude of loving acceptance and gentle matter-of-factness. Effectively, then, it allows our internal mental processes to flow without resistance or interference.

Very importantly, equanimity does NOT in any way imply apathy. Actually, in fact, it is the opposite of apathy in that it frees up internal energy to respond more fully and consciously to external situations.

It is also the opposite of suppression in that it entails radical permission to feel. With regard to expressing feelings externally, however, it empowers one to choose skillfully what is most appropriate to her/his particular life situation.

How Basic Mindfulness Helps in Recovery from Addictions

In keeping with the introductory nature of this article, the following brief description is intended to convey only an initial understanding of the formal practice of Basic Mindfulness and how it can help in recovery from addictions. What it highlights, however, will hopefully help readers recognize some of its unique potential in this regard. (Much more comprehensive information about this approach is provided through my blog, mentioned below.)

The formal practice of Basic Mindfulness is most commonly carried out with eyes gently closed while seated in an upright, but relaxed, posture.

The duration of a typical mindfulness practice session ranges from 10 to 45 minutes. After a few weeks of basic training, more extended periods of practice can accelerate one’s progress greatly. This is commonly carried out in “retreat” settings that are specifically set up to support this type of more intense practice for periods ranging from a few consecutive hours up to several days, or even weeks.

The initial phase of practice emphasizes concentration power, which is of key importance in subsequently developing both sensory clarity and equanimity.

Concentration power then functions much like an internal microscope, allowing one to become clearly and continuously aware of all external and internal sensory events-very importantly, including emotional feeling, mental images, and verbal self-talk.

As an aid to this continuous, detailed observation, the meditator formally “notes” these sensory states with a simple sub-vocal label (e.g., “feel,” “image,” “talk,” etc.). In doing so, s/he also “embraces” all of them lovingly and equally with deep equanimity-that is, with complete acceptance and non-reactivity.

This state of equanimity arises very naturally as a result of applying concentration and includes, very importantly, deep body-mind relaxation. As such, it is intrinsically comforting and satisfying and, for people who are addicted, it often gives rise to the dramatic insight that what they have been compulsively seeking through external addictive objects is actually abundantly available from within.

Through this highly focused and non-reactive observational process, internal states that were previously experienced as being vaguely global, static and overpowering are clearly re-perceived as nothing other than an impersonal and impermanent flow of subtle mental events. Shinzen Young, who is a master teacher of Basic Mindfulness, sometimes refers to this highly empowering process of fine-grained perception as a “divide and conquer” strategy.

In the traditional practice of mindfulness, this simple process of systematically bringing clear, highly discriminating awareness and equanimity to internal sensory states that have been previously out of awareness has been found to be powerfully “purifying.” That is, it gradually-or sometimes quite suddenly and dramatically-reduces or eliminates completely the potential of these internal states to activate automatic unskillful reactions.

This application of Basic Mindfulness, then, provides a powerful means of recovery from all forms of addiction. Interestingly in this regard, it effectively utilizes pure awareness as a “higher power” instead of relying on ego-based “will power,” which has repeatedly proven to be highly ineffective in achieving lasting recovery.

Noah Levine, author of the book, Dharma Punx, is an outstanding exemplar of someone who has made a highly impressive recovery from severe drug addiction through the intensive practice of mindfulness. For more in-depth information and guidance in applying mindfulness to recovery from addiction, please visit my blog, “Wise Ways to Happiness.”

The 12 Steps To Recovery From Sex Addiction

Recovering from a sex addiction requires adhering to a 12 step program. Such programs have become synonymous with people’s efforts to change their lives and behaviors, and have been applied to everything including over-eating, sex, compulsive gambling, and drug addiction.

The original 12 step program was published by Alcoholics Anonymous in the late 1930s to treat addiction to alcohol. Since then, it has been adapted and directed towards other forms of addiction and compulsive behaviors and has been recognized by the American Psychological Foundation. Small details within each 12 step program change depending on what’s being treated, but all follow the same template. While there is debate on what defines addiction, many agree that the brain becomes dependent on chemicals either imbibed (alcohol) or produced naturally through a behavior, such as sex or gambling.

The 12 Steps:

Step one is the sex addict admitting they have no power over their sex addiction and that their lives have gotten out of control. This step essentially defines a sex addiction, a situation where a person no longer can control their sexual behavior despite it causing them problems. This may sound facetious, but if a sex addict could control their behavior, they would not be an addict. Admitting powerlessness also opens the door to getting outside help. A person with a broken leg does not try to mend it on their own, they call a doctor because they do not have the skills to heal themselves. It is no different with a sex addiction.

Step two is acknowledging there is a “higher power” that can help the addict with their addiction. This and the next step may be two of the least understood, as “higher power” generally refers to God. While many going through the 12 step program turn to the Christian faith, anything can serve as the higher power. A person can look to the sun, a favorite object, anything they can mentally equate with a power above themselves. Some neurologists have said the human brain is hardwired towards religion, and because of this it can be used as a powerful tool in influencing behavior.

A higher power plays the role of a neutral yet supportive third part in the sex addict’s life. It is not the addicts themselves, nor is it their therapist, nor is it a loved one the addict may have wronged or someone who will judge them.

The third step is giving themselves over to that higher power, as they understand it. Many sex addicts begin reading the Bible and attending religious services of their faith. Others will take up a different spiritual text as their understand of their higher power. The book or the faith or belief is not important here, what is important is that the reliance on self get turned over to a reliance on a higher power. Most religions have set guidelines on sexual conduct, as well as other aspects of life, and make for a ready made code of conduct a person can adhere to, at least until their lives are under their control once more.

Step four is where the sex addict gets to the “nitty gritty” of their problem and comes to see what it looks like from the outside by completing a “moral inventory” of themselves. This inventory documents their life and how and when their sexual habits, failings, and other common behaviors began in an effort to see the big picture and have an accurate understanding of what it is. Typically, a deadline is put on this step, as many addicts tend to get hung up on it, either because they find it difficult to examine themselves this way, or feel the need to be too thorough.

The fifth step involves taking that inventory and showing it to someone else, either a spouse, sponsor, clergy or trusted confidant, or even another sex addict further along in their treatment. This is done for a number of reasons. If a sex addict can share this, it means they are comfortable with it to a degree and will be able to open up further because seeing the behavior inventory may not be enough to let the sex addict truly see their problem or recognize patterns in their behavior. When it comes to the familiar, an addict sees what they intend rather than what really is. It’s the same as when an athlete needs a coach to check their stance or swing or attitude for their sport. So the sex addict needs another pair of eyes on their moral inventory to catch things and gain feedback from a different perspective.

Steps six and seven of the original Alcoholics Anonymous version are asking the higher power or God to remove the addict’s defects and to forgive them. Other, more secular minded versions describe these steps as similar transition periods. The sex addict goes from identifying the problem to recognizing that they, themselves, are now past that stage and can now expend energy enacting change. The addict is taught to see that the mistakes have been made cannot be unmade, and wishing to change the past is a waste of energy. While it’s not a “clear slate,” it is a shift of focus onto the present, which can be affected by the sex addict.

Step eight, while at first may seem like a look back, is actually for the addict to compile a list of people their sex addiction has harmed. This may be family they’ve neglected, spouses cheated on, and in extreme cases, victims of their sexual abuse. This step is sometimes broken down into smaller segments, identifying the types of relationships harmed by the sex addiction. In the case of deceased loved ones or people the addict cannot have contact with, this step serves as an emotional release by further letting the addict see the extent of the damage their behavior has caused.

The ninth step is an extension of the eighth, and involves making amends with the people identified in that step, when possible. It could be something as simple as a verbal apology, and may not be something that can be accomplished in a moment, a day, or even months. This step is distinctive to the individuals involved, and not completely possible in all cases.

Step 10 is continuing the list from step five, and admitting when a mistake has been made. This can expand beyond sexual behavior and include any kind of non-desirable actions or emotions. Negative feelings are what led the sex addict to compulsively seek the numbing behavior to start with. And being able to identify those trouble spots and handle them in a way that doesn’t feed a new addiction cycle is key. Sex addiction often comes with other forms of addiction, or can spin off into those other forms if the root cause is not being monitored.

Prayer and meditation are Step 11 in the program. Many call prayer and meditation one and the same, but whichever route the sex addict chooses, they should set aside time each day for quiet reflection. A daily pause is used as an anchor to keep the complexities of the addict’s outside world from becoming overwhelming. This step lets the sex addict remind themselves of their progress and the tools they have to fight their compulsions.

The final step is working with other sex addicts, or passing on some of the knowledge the addict has gained. The selfless side of this is ensures a pool of experienced teachers well versed in the subject matter who can perpetuate the program. The benefit to the addict doing the teaching is the same as to teacher; the one imparting the wisdom in turn learns more about what they’ve come to know. Having to articulate to another person what one has learned makes a person think about benefits in ways they hadn’t before, and leads to greater understanding.

Those are the basic 12 steps found in addiction recovery programs. Many are closely related, but together they show a progression. It should be noted this programs not a “do these 12 things and you’re cured” prescription, but at the higher levels are a lifelong set of behaviors. They may play a less active role in the recovering sex addict’s life as time goes on, but the inventory, meditation, and teaching tend to be in the background for a long time.

Compulsive Gambler's Guilt Affects Their Gambling Addiction Recovery

When a compulsive gambler is in recovery, feeling guilty is one of the toughest areas to resolve for some people. When a gambler finally makes the conscious decision to stop gambling, reality sets in for the first time in a long time. When they take finally take stock in themselves they see all the damage they caused. Some people stop right before it's too late and they have a few assets left. Then the compulsive gambler thinks they're in control and once again go back to gambling. The next time the destruction is twice as worse. The feelings of guilt increase until they finally are willing to face they have a gambling problem.

Through various discussions with compulsive gamblers, I found a majority felt guilty and ashamed about the following:

* Feeling guilty you lied to your family and friends

* Feeling ashamed that your family and friends know you have a problem gambling

* Feeling guilty that friends and family may never trust you again

* Feeling guilty and ashamed knowing how much money you lost that could have been better spent.

* Feeling guilty you didn't spend enough time with your children.

* Feeling guilty about your self destructive behavior

* Feeling guilty you did go to relatives and friends events (birthdays, graduations etc.)

In time people will forgive the compulsive gambler, but can the compulsive gambler forgive them selves?

Friends and family will come around if the compulsive gambler keeps their word from now on. Once the gambler tells you they stop gambling, they must stick to it. If not they will lose credibility. Trust is very important both for the compulsive gambler and for the family and friends. People have to learn to trust compulsive gamblers all over again. In time they will if the compulsive gambler is willing to stop gambling.

Even though a compulsive gambler made numerous mistakes, they can recover and they can move forward. It's human nature to learn from your mistakes. No one is going to give the compulsive gambler the death penalty for gambling. A lot of gamblers feel this way when their world comes crumbling down.

Take the time to improve your quality of life and the compulsive gambler's feelings of guilt will diminish over time.