• Kayte Thomas

Think you know about addiction? Think again.

Could you be harboring an addiction unintentionally?

When we think of addictions, substance use issues most often come to mind. And as a society, we’re generally unkind towards people who are struggling with substance use disorders. But do we ever take the time to notice how many other things we are addicted to as well? Probably not.

Addiction is a really interesting phenomenon. Now, I’m not an addictions specialist but I still have enough knowledge to be able to speak competently on this issue. Addiction is rarely if ever an individual failure – it’s usually a social failure. Addiction typically stems from a deep-seated pain that the person is trying to avoid or cover up or free themselves from. Instead of feeling the discomfort, the person tries to find something that either feels better or even just feels different. It’s because of this that addiction can be conceptualized as “compulsive comfort seeking”.

I think that term creates more compassion towards those who are struggling. Have you ever considered addiction that way before? The person is seeking comfort, so much so that it’s become a compulsion. But what is it, I wonder, that is the barrier to their receipt of comfort? Usually, it is a lack of connection or support. Researchers have done these studies with rats (because it couldn’t ethically be done with humans) where they separate the rats from their little rat friends and offer them water full of opiates. And what happens? No surprise, the rats get addicted. But THEN….they put the little addicted rats back with their little rat friends and also give them access to opiate water and – do you know what happens? The little addicted rats no longer seek the opiate water. Their compulsive comfort seeking stops when they find comfort. Isn’t that amazing? This knowledge has absolutely changed the way I look at both addiction issues and society’s impact on those who are struggling.

So, what does this mean for humans right now? Well, it’s not the best news. It means that with the physical and emotional separation due to COVID restrictions, vulnerable people are really struggling. It means that a lot more are turning to substances more frequently and thus may be at risk of substance use disorders when these restrictions end. Thankfully though, knowledge is power, and knowledge means that we can prevent more issues from occurring. If you’re reading this, think about who amongst your loved ones you can reach out to in a safe and socially distanced way to ensure there is still a sense of connection. Or, if you need connection, think about who you can reach out to as well.

Now let’s cover a few quick things about substance use addiction issues before moving on. First and foremost – in some instances withdrawal can kill you. What people don’t often realize is that alcohol withdrawal can be deadly, probably because it’s a substance with such common access and use in social settings that it seems like it would be safe. Other substances can be fatal when withdrawing from their use also, so always consult a medical professional if you think you have a substance use disorder before trying to stop altogether. Also, realize that substances can interact with any medications you are taking and again, you need to speak with a physician and be entirely honest about any substances you are using in order for the doctor to be able to gauge potential risks and interactions of your use. This is really, really important.

Onto the other points of this blog post though. Substances aren’t the only things we can be addicted to. We can be addicted to activity – exercise, video games, work; we can be addicted to unhealthy relationships – power/control, violence, risky sex; we can be addicted to distorted thought processes – obsessions, escapism, perfectionist thinking; we can be addicted to other substances – food, sugar, nicotine. How often though do we as a society view these issues in the same manner as we do drugs and alcohol? Sometimes, we glorify them – those who exercise excessively are told how great they look for being overly thin; those who work too many hours and remain disconnected are told how dedicated they are to their careers and receive promotions or awards; those who are addicted to technology are told that this is “normal” or even necessary today. And how many of us then unintentionally harbor addictions without even realizing it? And how many of us promote addictions in others unintentionally as well?

It’s a lot to process. Recently, I came across this updated image of an addiction tree and I absolutely love it.

Take a good look at this. Notice how many different branches of possible addictions exist. Those are what we call the “fruits” of the tree, but look also to the “roots” of the tree – what is causing these concerns? Often times, it’s trauma. It doesn’t always start at home, and I realize that this graphic says “dysfunctional family” right in the center, but that isn’t always the case. There is definitely a strong correlation to family issues with addiction concerns though. However, the underlying causes generally stem from disconnection somewhere in a core area in life. So if you notice something in the fruits of the tree (addictions) that resonates with you as a concern which you may have, ask yourself what the roots (causes) to that might be. And remember that trauma can be healed. The disconnect which is causing you or a loved one to seek unhealthy ways of comfort can be re-connected. There is hope.

If in reading this you’ve realized that you or someone you love has an unhealthy relationship with substances or any other issue….seek help. There is a professional available for every form of addiction listed in this image and more. Beyond that, try to seek balance in life. Take a quick self-assessment of your engagement in these areas and see if you are devoting too much time or energy towards one activity or area, or if this is somehow detracting from your connection with others? If so, it might be wise to readjust your time or energy before it becomes problematic. Ask yourself if you have enough connection right now with friends or loved ones. It’s difficult during the pandemic, but try to be creative. Schedule zoom chats, drive-by visits, social distanced hikes, regular phone calls, and other check ins with loved ones to stay connected. Search for support groups to connect with others who are experiencing what you are as well.

Additionally, addictions have an underlying neurobiological component - so that means you can do something to affect the way your mind and body is perceiving that which would usually trigger an unhealthy coping mechanism. If you're feeling overwhelmed by something, and you're sure that you're safe (that's important), try a few simple changes - drink cold water, take several deep breaths, go out for a walk, dance, make sure you've eaten something healthy, and prioritize rest. Never underestimate the power of genuine connection, healthy activity, and a nap.

The year has been challenging in so many ways, but remember that we are stronger together and connection matters. Reaching out to each other could just change a life. Nobody should feel alone while social distancing - we've got this. Stay healthy, stay connected, stay mindful of addiction triggers. And remember to breathe.

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