Understanding Addiction

Understanding Addiction

Photo by Dmitriy Ermakov
Photo by Dmitriy Ermakov

We all seek to connect with who we really are, and stay connected. That is a place of pure being, of calm, and of balance. This experience is profoundly regulating for our body, mind, and emotions. But when we were young, we may not have had consistent examples of this. We don’t know where or how to look when there’s no reference for it. Thus, we seek outside of ourselves.

Addiction is a natural adaptation when that reference point has not been present. As I’ve written before, we grasp at what we want and resist what we don’t want. Even single-celled organisms show this behaviour. When faced with challenges, we naturally seek a resolution. If we don’t know a way, we seek resolution in other ways.

We all have our adaptations to address our rough spots. Our morning coffee, going for drinks at the end of the week, using spiritual practices to check out, and so forth.

If you don’t think you have any addictions, then you’re a remarkable exception. We live in a culture that encourages addictive behaviour as it’s profitable. If we have a craving, find relief from a behaviour, and cannot stop despite negative consequences, guess what? Eating the entire carton of ice cream may be a soothing behaviour. But is it without side effects? And does it resolve anything? And is this a pattern?

“Quirks” we have, like seeking comfort food, escaping into games, or staying up late, can easily become addictive if they meet an unmet need. Of course, there are degrees of addiction and of harm.

The idea here is not to find things to feel guilty or ashamed of. It’s to become more conscious of behaviours that can be markers for what’s unresolved. More on this shortly.

Substances, gambling, shopping, sex, relationships, food, work, social media, spiritual practices, isolation, information, gaming… addiction can take many forms. There are even collective addictions like consumerism and fear-mongering. The issue is not with these things, but our dysfunctional relationship with them.

“Addictions are a misguided spiritual search for wholeness and individuation.”
– Carl Jung

Society sees some addictions as acceptable and some not. Having a drink, a coffee, or overeating is acceptable. We joke about eating an entire box of chocolates. When I was younger, smoking was acceptable and everywhere. Today it’s become much less acceptable and we shame smokers. People frown upon many drugs and some are even illegal.

Yet none of these are healthy. They’re all ways to meet an unmet need. We wouldn’t behave this way otherwise.

“addiction as the development of coping habits within a social matrix.*”

The basics of addiction are straightforward, but they can be complex. For example, food is a basic need. We develop associations with food early on, like that it represents mother’s care, is a reward, and/or is comforting. Over time, we can find that overeating dulls our painful emotions or helps us to ground. These are less healthy adaptations. And they cover the natural signals the body gives us for what it needs and how much.

I’m not interested in wading into the politics of addiction. This article is about its nature and how we can understand it better.

It used to be that addictions were viewed as a choice and moral failing. We dealt with “unacceptable” addictions in the courts and shamed the “perpetrators.” However, our cognitive will has little effect against our lower brain when it feels a survival threat because of an unmet need. Shaming increases the need to escape, making the issue worse.

We then developed a Disease model, which is much more humane and allows medical treatment. 12-step programs are related. Yet while treatment helps get out from under the addiction, it doesn’t resolve the cause. Thus, many will relapse or perhaps shift into a more socially acceptable addiction.

Some drugs don’t have a physical hook for addiction but, like any other on the list, will still have behavioural hooks if they meet an unmet need.

They also created the Four Pillars model. These are: harm reduction, prevention, treatment, and enforcement. This blends the enforcement and medical approaches and may be more acceptable politically. But again, it doesn’t get at the cause.

What is “a neurophysiological explanation for …addictive responses*”?

It turns out trauma causes addiction. Again, trauma is a natural adaption to overwhelming experiences we’ve had in our life. Because it’s an intense experience, we build psychological defences against experiencing it again. But it remains unresolved in our energy physiology. It still burbles away unconsciously, muting our quality of life and influencing our perception and decision-making.

That unresolved pain leads to a need for escape, even if we don’t recognize what it’s from. We’ve carefully hidden our “exiled parts” from ourselves to avoid it. Yet it still drives a need for relief. Thus we’re led to seek regulation by other means. When a substance or behaviour offers a regulated state, even if briefly, we can become hooked. Even if its overall effect is harmful.

Then we can never get enough of what almost works. The nervous system seeks a moment of calm now, as the body only knows now, whatever the long-term consequences.

Sadly, marginalized populations are subject to greater trauma and thus are more likely to fall prey.

“Experiences of oppression lead to trauma, and trauma is the underbelly of addiction. Consequently, marginalized groups are much more vulnerable.*”

Thus, addiction is a substitute for being able to self-regulate. It’s our best attempt to regulate when we don’t know another way.

When very young, we’re built to receive calming regulation from our mother. We co-regulate with her soothing. We learn balance through direct experience. In separating from our mother, we can then internalize that felt sense of safety and can self-regulate, culturing balance and calm.

But if our parents didn’t learn to self-regulate, or could not show us consistently, we didn’t learn. We didn’t develop a sense of centre or calm. And even if we did, a later trauma can throw us out of balance.

All addictions are driven by a dsyregulated nervous system seeking homeostasis, seeking balance. We’re stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze survival response in our nervous system because of trauma, incomplete experiences. We may even ping back and forth between excited and depressed states. Our biological imperative to seek survival through balance trumps any personal will.

“trauma robs us of safety, belonging and dignity. Without these basic needs being met, we seek out quick and dirty ways of soothing to help us survive.*”

The greater the trauma, the more likely an addiction.

So, if trauma is the cause of addiction, we can treat the trauma and resolve the driver of addiction.

Addiction is NOT about the behaviour. That’s the adaptation. Have you ever tried to stop a craving? Shaming and self-judgment only triggers more trauma.

Those in a more suppressed state seek a kick up in something exciting, like stimulants. Those in an overexcited state seek a kick down, like a few beers. In both cases, they seek regulation, a middle ground.

Ironically, the side-effects of addiction can be what drives people to seek real healing. It’s not an easy path, but the long term benefits are considerable.

“The goal is not to feel better but get better at feeling.”
– Michael Brown

When we can feel, we can process those incomplete experiences and resolve the trauma. Then we’re getting at the cause of the behaviour.

However, for more serious addictions, recovery is more involved. We can’t comfortably jump into our unresolved baggage if we don’t have a developed capacity to process it.

We may need rehab to get physically unhooked. Cognitive therapy can help with the triggering shame. And we need a stable living circumstance away from the influence.

Then we have the potential to develop our inner resources and thus have the capacity to process our trauma and heal.

When we’re able to address the trauma, our system shifts from a protective mode into calm and connected naturally. The addictive impulse fades.

Then we’re driven by the flow of life more fully. Calm becomes the norm, we act from our centre, and results come more smoothly. Ahhhh….

*Several quotes above are from this article by Jan Winhall.

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  1. Peter Goodman

    Thank you, as always, David!
    I am appreciative of the Divine mission you are on to communicate the challenges we face and many solutions from which the person, or more important I, can select what works for me.
    We all need assistance.
    From established Consciousness you extend to us increased possibilities. We all need more opportunities to grow and flourish on our pathless path to developing, opening ourselves to the beauty, magnificence, and majesty of unfolding, blossoming Consciousness.
    Thank you, David!

    1. Peter Goodman

      David, what I have found, in my awakening state, is the illusion of control. For me, I have found in my lifelong quest is that I do not control anything. I can respond to what comes up, from Maharishi – “… do what you know to be right …”. Move forward as best I can. Performing the techniques and Procedures I have as tools to clean and purify this vessel within Space Time for the purpose to experience Timelessness. Being as Lucia & Lorn describe as “… as Being the Present Moment of Now …” .
      Back to control – if I do not control my small body mind I do not control anything outside of this nervous system. I am in the process of letting go of trying to manipulate things outside of this vessel. This is a big one. The attempt to untangle all of the intertwining of the chains ⛓️‍ that are the connections that bind the ego and intellect to things I tried to control. The ongoing journey toward true Freedom.
      Because to me this post was to help and assist us on our pathless Path toward Freedom no matter what the world around us is doing.
      Peter Goodman
      Thank you David for what you post on the blog.

      1. Hi Peter
        Yes, as we make spiritual progress, we see through the illusion of control. The ego itself knows it’s not in control but likes to make us think otherwise to maintain its status.
        When we step beyond that, ego takes its rightful place as a function. And then we step into the cosmic Self. That sense of loss of control fades as we deepen in being and recognize that who we are is what’s running the show. Not as a me, but as our essential nature. Yet still, there is always a deeper letting go into deeper values of our true nature.

  2. ‘Then we can never get enough of what almost works.’ This line hit so deep. I mused on addiction at a very young age and essentially came to the conclusion that anything that provided pleasure, could become an addiction, and that essentially, we are all ‘addicted’ in some way or another.

    “Experiences of oppression lead to trauma, and trauma is the underbelly of addiction. Consequently, marginalized groups are much more vulnerable.*” A vicious cycle. How do we break it?

    ‘Our biological imperative to seek survival through balance trumps any personal will.’ So much need for self-compassion here.

    ‘Shaming and self-judgment only triggers more trauma.’ Oh, this line. Thank you.

    ‘Not as a me, but as our essential nature. Yet still, there is always a deeper letting go into deeper values of our true nature.’ Mmm. An important and valuable shift in perspective.

    ‘Heard a comment that ego identification is a form of addiction, an addiction to a self-concept so we feel safe and in control.’ I feel this deeply.

    1. Hi Jenifer
      Yes, but it’s important to understand that pleasure itself is fine and natural. (It’s Greeaat!) The issue is when there is unresolved experiences and unmet needs. Then almost any behaviour that meets said need, even partially, can become an addiction. Inversely, any behaviour that helps us avoid pain can have the same binding.

      We can break it by healing. Even if the oppressed don’t have the opportunities to heal, our healing will shift from personal to collective, lightening the burden of everyone. The collective progress is astonishing. The surface is a little crazy because of the purification taking place.

      And yes, I had a lot of insights going through the addiction module in class. Recognizing some of the patterns here. Some have faded. A few still have hooks. But now they’re more conscious, I can work through them. Had an EP session this evening that cleared a host of related contractions that went from existential fear of early identity through teen anger. Whew!

      And yes, ego identification is a rather classic example of addiction. Working on an article on very early childhood development and the formation of the identity.

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