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Understanding addiction

Do you know someone who is struggling with an addiction? Or maybe you are struggling yourself. It's not as uncommon as you think. It could be an addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, shopping, food, name it.

How do we know if it's an addiction?

If it's causing problems in one or more important areas in your life - relationships, work or school, legally, financially, emotionally, or physically - then it's considered a problem.

It's a bigger problem if you have tried to cut down or quit and cannot seem to control it no matter how hard you try. Or you need to take in more of the substance or engage in the behavior more and more over time to get the same effect. You may have withdrawal symptoms if you try to stop - anxiety, irritability, or fatigue. If it's time-consuming and takes away from other important things in your life like spending time with friends or family, exercising, or hobbies then it's interfering with your life. When several of these things are happening, it's a sign that there is a physical and/or psychological dependence on the substance or behavior.

A few years back, I read an eye-opening book about addiction called The Alcoholism and Addiction Cure written by Chris Prentiss. Chris' son, Pax, was addicted to heroin, cocaine, and alcohol for 10 years. Chris tried the usual treatment methods for his son but they all failed. It was after years of conducting his own research that he discovered what actually "healed" addiction. Based on this knowledge, this father and son opened up the Passages treatment center in Malibu, California.

The day Pax discovered the "why" behind his dependency was the last day he used drugs or alcohol. This was the critical element that was missing from all of the previous treatment centres. Once he figured this out, he never relapsed and now helps others.

Chris points out that many of us have been taught that addictions are a disease. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. It's taught that addictions are genetic and passed down in families. The typical belief is that we are doomed to get it if other family members had it.

I agree with Chris that this kind of mindset "cripples everyone who believes it and makes it seemingly impossible to break through to the other side." Bruce Lipton, best selling author and biologist, says that our beliefs can literally turn on or off our genes. So negative beliefs about becoming an alcoholic or succumbing to a serious illness, can turn on the genes in our body to make it so. That's powerful!

Fortunately, it is now becoming known that people are not incurably diseased but rather they have become dependent on a substance or addictive behavior to cope with underlying conditions. The addiction is a response to the underlying condition. The substance is just a way to provide release from the pain and change ones reality from unbearable to bearable - even if only temporarily.

The dependency is a symptom of something else. Seeing it in this light enables one to heal more effectively. Putting a label on someone as having an incurable disease only stigmatizes them further.

Chris warns to not assume your family history has fated you to dependency because this will work against you. Genetics play a small role. He believes that actively working on the 4 causes of dependency is the most important step.

The 4 causes of dependency:

Cause 1: People often turn to a substance to feel better when there is a physical and/or emotional problem. A physical problem could be pain, fatigue, agitation, sleep problems, or decreased concentration. Or it could be a psychological problem such as anxiety, stress, grief, anger, guilt, or depression. When the underlying problem(s) is addressed, the need for a substance no longer exists.

Cause 2: Unresolved events from the past such as abuse, abandonment, resentment, or childhood events. Talking about these things can reduce cravings for substances and heal the pain so one can become well.

Cause 3: Negative beliefs that are inconsistent with what is true. Ones (negative) philosophy does not support them through the difficult times. They may view the world as a negative place and this attracts more negativity. Believing a cure is possible is a key factor in determining if someone will overcome their dependency. Chris (and I) believe, "As you believe, so it is for you."

Cause 4: Inability to cope with current conditions. For example, if someone is in an unhappy marriage, they need to address this concern to reduce negative feelings. Often when the stress ends, so does the need for substances.

Chris points out that unless someone identifies their core cause of dependency and corrects it, they'll probably continue to be dependent on substances for relief.

In my own work, I ask clients who are struggling with substance use: What need are you trying to meet (by using that substance)? Some of the responses are - to escape stress or anxiety or even boredom, to feel confident or boost self-esteem, to push down sadness, to get some sleep, or to reward themselves for hard work.

Whatever the cause of dependency, the goal in using a substance is to feel a sense of balance and happiness.

There's some reason or problem that has existed in their life from before the time they started using the substance that's causing the dependency. If they find out why they're doing it, they can then begin to heal.

Chris brings up some important questions to ask: What were you feeling bad about that the substance made you feel good about? What did you do when you were "high" that you didn't do when you were sober? What was wrong that using the substance fixed?

I see people self-medicating and I don't think they're fully aware of the consequences. For example, someone has a broken heart, and he numbs himself to keep from feeling the grief when what really helps is expressing those feelings of loss. Someone is self-medicating for sleep problems when what they need is to learn sleep strategies to calm an overactive mind. They're medicating their fears and their pain and not addressing the underlying factors.

So treatment must address the root cause that is feeding the dependency in order to be effective. Once the underlying conditions have been identified and addressed, the healing process has begun and dependency can end.

Lastly, keep in mind that relapse is not common for people who receive the proper care.

There is hope after all...


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Beth Matthews is a Registered Psychologist who is driven to help people feel better about themselves. She can help you if you are struggling in your life. You can learn easy-to-use strategies to help you cope with anything that comes your way.


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