How change can trigger addiction—or recovery

Addiction actually alters the way your brain works. How to meld your mind, body, and spirit to re-wire your neural networks.

BY MARY COOK, M.A., R.A.S. — The year that will go down in history as 2011 was marked by yet another parade of news stories about public figures whose lives ended due to addiction — from Amy Winehouse to Alice in Chains musician Mike Starr. What these stories have in common is this: while everyone from economists to motivational gurus like Tony Robbins advocate constant change, change itself means constant stress.

That even goes for positive changes — like getting married or buying your first house.

Stress of any kind can trigger addictive behaviors. Addictions redirect our attention from what we fear or dislike to things that we feel that we can control — or that bring a temporary sense of comfort, pleasure, power, or excitement.

But understanding how addiction works, and the power of the recovery process, can help us see all kinds of change as opportunities for growth.

What is “triggered”? A beast within

When a particular change brings up unhealed issues from the past, it can stimulate unconscious and defensive coping mechanisms, painful emotions, and outdated belief systems. These, in turn, can trigger addictive behaviors.

Addictions are defined as chronic, repetitive actions that are extremely difficult to disrupt in spite of escalating negative consequences. They actually change the way the brain works:

  • Base urges dominate — like survival, hunger, thirst, lust, fear and flight, anger and aggression, pleasure-seeking and avoidance of pain
  • The body adapts to high levels of stress, adrenalin and depression
  • Emotions that stimulate addictive behavior are intensified and prolonged
  • Feelings that threaten to diminish or extinguish the addiction become diluted and fleeting
  • Conscious awareness of spirit is reduced and commensurately, receptivity, trust, and faith

Addictive conduct creates the illusion of gratifying one’s needs. But in fact it undermines the very essence of health and fulfillment.

In practicing addictions we are refusing to grow, refusing to see ourselves as capable individuals, and refusing to see the support and resources that are available around us now.

Even a reluctant willingness to change is enough to start the recovery process.

What do we recover in “recovery”?

Learning to distinguish past trauma from current circumstances is critical in recovery. As recovering addicts see how honest, deep sharing can be met with compassion, sensitivity, hope and healing, the higher brain becomes more dominant and psychological maturity can take root.

Building trust in recovery gives recovering addicts the courage to express emotions that make them feel vulnerable, healing trauma and emotional pain. Intentionally experiencing positive feelings like joy, gratitude, serenity, and acceptance strengthens them. Self-soothing to calm fear when there is no real, imminent danger brings resilience, similar to a healthy parent’s response to a child with a nightmare.

Physical healing requires self care and relaxation, including appropriate amounts of rest, sleep and exercise, healthy eating, normalizing energy levels, and conscious reconnection with and appreciation of the physical body.

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Opening to a positive relationship with spirit and identifying how spirit communicates is a key component of change in recovery. This bond can be strengthened through prayer, meditation, recognizing blessings and miracles, altruistic giving and spiritual love for all. Accepting the present moment and relying upon spiritual principles to meet changes create alignment with the greatest good.

Mary Cook is the author of Grace Lost and Found: From Addictions and Compulsions to Satisfaction and SerenityShe has 35 years of clinical practice and 29 years of university teaching experience. Mary speaks on addiction issues across the country and has a private practice in San Pedro, CA.

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