Celebrating 10 Years

A Mindful Cycle of Addiction

Cycle of Addiction

A Mindful Cycle of Addiction Jeffrey Burda, PsyD, West Hartford Holistic Counseling Millions of people struggle daily with addiction to alcohol or other drugs like cannabis, opiates, or prescription pills. Many know they need to stop and really want to stop for good, but can’t seem to stop using for any meaningful length of time. Thus repeats the typical (and usually hellish!) cycle of addiction – using, stopping, and “slipping” or relapsing – again, and again, and again. And again.

One big reason for “picking up” that drink or drug once again is trouble dealing with feelings. For those who experience continuous waves of wild emotion, this statement sounds like a dip in the kiddie pool – a gross understatement, to say the least. Anger, Fear, Loneliness, Jealousy, Insecurity, Sadness, and Self-Loathing are some of the “big players” that tend the flames of addiction. When these strong feelings come, the natural reaction for many is to want to get rid of them…and right away, of course! Who wants to sit with such uncomfortable, painful, and confusing stuff? That beer or joint or benzo just might do the trick.  Just might provide some relief.  Temporary relief until the feelings come again.  And they will.

Changing the Pattern of Addiction

One way of changing the pattern of reacting to emotional discomfort with drinking or drugging is to develop a healthier responding to those unpleasant feelings. Mindfulness can be a powerful tool in this regard. Being mindful simply means being intentionally aware of what you’re feeling now, in this present moment, while refraining from harshly judging yourself or what’s going on inside you. Easier said than done! But by practicing mindfulness again, and again, and again, one may begin to cultivate a small “space” or “gap” between feeling and picking up that drug. This space gives you the opportunity to choose to do something different like call a friend, go for a walk, play with the kids, or just sit and breathe until the feelings pass. And they will.

Let’s look at a brief example to illustrate the general idea:

  • Mary is trying to stay away from drinking alcohol. She gets into a heated argument with her boyfriend and experiences familiar feelings of rage, blame, hopelessness, and confusion. She wants to drink very badly, as this is her old way of dealing.
  • Instead, Mary does something different. She stops herself and pays attention to her breathing, which is rapid and heavy at the moment. She looks out the window and watches closely as a man walks by her house with a little white dog. Mary notices how she really wants to smash her phone and call her boyfriend back to yell at him more (not necessarily in that order). But, she pauses. She notices that her breathing is slowing down. She takes a few more deep breaths, and pauses again, staying right where she’s at. She thinks that now is not the time to act angrily, and especially not to drink.
  • Throughout, Mary practices a little mindful self-compassion. She accepts that she contributed to the argument. She tells herself that it if okay to feel these feelings, and that they are old familiar “friends” (wow, what friends!) of hers. Mary consciously notes that she is working on changing how she reacts to these feelings, and that change will come with practice – not overnight. She is happy she didn’t drink and happy she didn’t make a bad situation worse. Lightness and humor begin to seep in slowly.
  • Mary then chooses to use the “pause” she created to instead go out with a friend who is in recovery. After speaking with her friend, she decides to give it a day or two before talking with her boyfriend. She may even do something radical like turn off her phone for a while!

Those in recovery, or those desiring to decrease or stop their alcohol and drug use can probably identify with Mary’s experience. The main point is to consciously work on doing something different with those troublesome feelings. Pausing, slowing down, and grounding oneself in the breath may make the difference between continuing the addictive cycle, or not. And, importantly, try a little gentleness with yourself. For many, this can be the hardest part. After all, you are working on changing and change often does not come easy. It takes time to heal. It takes mindful practice, over and over, again and again, to get better.

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