There is a lot of information out there on addiction, 12 step programs, the science and psychology behind all sorts of things like addiction to gambling, drinking, drugs, pornography. These “modalities” provide an external focus that lights up the reward centers of the brain and releases this flood of neurotransmitters. We go on a dopamine high and when we come down we need another hit. External addictions can be identified, placed out in the open and worked on. But what about addictions that aren’t external?
What about the addictions of the mind (okay, okay that’s a little bit of a misnomer because all addictions are addictions of the mind, but go with it, okay)?
I describe an emotional addiction as repetitively reacting to situations based purely on feeling or seeing the world through anger or fear colored glasses, for example. There is a little more to it than that, though and many other potential examples. Take love for instance. Falling in love is one of the most compelling and strong emotional pulls out there (at least in my book). I LOVE falling in love. The first shy glances, the piercing of that person’s heart and soul, the rush of feel goods that come with every adorable thing that person does, it’s glorious. The addictive behavior can come in when, for instance, a person routinely dumps every partner as soon as the honeymoon phase wears off, they go from new partner to new partner getting hit after hit, all the while wondering why they can’t find “the one.”
Other emotions are, maybe, a little less obvious. Take anxiety (read: fear) for example. Maybe as a young child you were screamed at and physically threatened so you learned to be hyper vigilant of your surroundings and you learned all of the nuances of the people in your space so that you could help prevent an explosive event. As you went out into the world maybe that showed itself by being labeled as a people pleaser. Maybe you were the friend everyone counted on because they knew you were the one to remember all of the big dates and events because you were hard wired to do it, not realizing that it was a coping mechanism and the body was still residing in fight or flight mode. Perhaps the body is addicted to the anxiety because through that hyperviligance you were able to create safety as a young child.
Any addiction plays part on the reward centers of the brain. We do something well we get a flood of feel good chemicals. We fall in love, we save ourselves from an angry outburst…. all of these activities, though drastically different all release the same chemical response in our body. Our system then starts to create these neural pathways creating habit. These habits turn into addiction.
Is every habit an addiction? Of course not. Identifying intrinsic triggers can be very difficult to do and is a process which many people balk at because, if I am feeling it, it must be true. What happens though when anxiety, depression, anger, or fear start to take over your life? Suddenly one small hit doesn’t last very long and we go into more prolonged states of whatever the drug of choice is, in order to light up those pleasure centers. Soon we find ourselves in a constant fight or flight state looking for the next fix and the fucked up part is that if we don’t identify our emotional triggers, we will create a life that supports our addiction. We will literally surround ourselves with scenarios that support finding those feelings and we will see each situation through that skewed lens.
My family is very fear based. Their entire conversation revolves around all of the scary stuff on the news, all of the hypothetical issues that could arise, all of the perceived dangers. I can guarantee if there is any new story that could even remotely “effect” me per my mother, she will text me about it. It makes her feel good because she is being “protective and loving” and speaks to the lack of security she had as a child. I have spent a lot of time trying to unlearn this and will no doubt, spend a lot more. Each new event or person that comes into my life is met with fear initially. I have to consciously calm my nervous system and realize that most of the threats I am seeing simply aren’t real or worthy of such extreme focus.
Emotional addiction is tough because it’s pretty vulnerable to say to someone, hey I am working on rewiring my addiction to fear, what’s on your agenda for today? There are groups of support for these external addictions that are shown to work in decreasing and eliminating addictive behavior so to me, that says support is crucial which means taking the risk to be vulnerable, to find the group of people that you can say those things to and to work diligently on correcting these behaviors. One must have an awareness and focus that far exceeds the “normal” operating capacity of most individuals, because the trip down to those addictions can be really sneaky and quiet. Even on my best days I often still find myself stuck in a pattern of behavior I know isn’t good for me. The difference now is that instead of having to look back through my day to spot these moments, I am much more apt to catch them in the middle or even *gasp* at the beginning. Those are proud moments for me. I also have some amazing friends that will lovingly, but firmly call me on my bullshit. These are the friends that when I say I am having a bad day don’t say “Aw, I’m sorry,” but instead say, “Oh really, the world is imploding on you? Is that a useful view, what about this other perspective.” Sometimes I get super mad at these friends, because I realize they are right, and to be honest sometimes my diligence is lazy and I am addicted to the feeling of being a victim, of seeking that attention, because then I feel loved. But these friends ask me to stand up to a higher version of me and for that I will always love them.
How does one overcome an emotional addiction?
Become aware. Bring awareness to your thoughts, actions, feeling, choices, language. Find the areas where there are patterns and recognize then, thank them for doing their part in keeping you safe and move through them. And repeat that…. again and again and again, until new neural paths are formed and the addiction becomes displaced with a healthier outlook. Displacement is key. One cannot just say I’m scared so…. go away now. The emotion has to be displaced or it will never stick. I can feel scared to take a new job or I can see it as an adventure and recognize all of the strengths that will come with the journey through that process. Own your emotions, create space between your true self (the being observing the emotions) and the emotions themselves, acknowledge them and don’t beat yourself up when the show up time and time again. Realize that as you move through these patterns, they will not just quietly disappear from your life, they will show up stronger and stronger until there is no longer resistance and they can dissipate. Know that this will make you feel crazy for a while and that you will feel like you are not making progress. This is the time for support and guidance. And know you will come out the other side, a little stronger, a little wiser and a whole lot healthier and happier. ❤ ❤