Addiction Management Blog

Archive for March, 2010

Who is the best at living the longest?

Saturday, March 20th, 2010

This past week I had a few minutes to spare in Washington DC, so I dropped by the National Geographic Society headquarters and discovered a project that has significant relevance to successfully solving the problem of addiction. Writer and photographer Dan Buettner embarked on a journey around the globe in search of communities that optimized lifestyle for longevity and happiness, places he calls blue zones.  He boiled down his research for the book Blue Zones into principles for living a long and prosperous life. Here is a great summary of the book he did for TED:

For those who struggle with addiction, the keys outlined in the book (and the speech above) provide a road map for translating the MRC solution into reality. Let’s look at how they line up:

Successfully dealing with addiction requires identifying those things in your life that are chronic issues, and then developing strategies that appropriately keep these things in-check. When we expect to permanently solve a chronic problem we set ourselves up for failure because there is no cure or end to these issues, they require ongoing attention. Addiction, diet, chronic medical issues, time and exercise are all things we must learn to successfully manage. In Blue Zones, the keys that line up with manage include:

  • Learn to move naturally. Those who live to be 100 rarely engage in rigorous exercise. Instead, they incorporate  walking, gardening, yoga and other less body-stressful movements into their daily routine. Developing a healthy lifestyle free from addiction necessitates learning to move in the world in a new way, in a natural, physically and emotionally pain-free way.
  • Slow down. Our culture perpetuates addictive behavior by encouraging lifestyles where multi-tasking, reliance on technology, and instant gratification become packaged in a speedaholic existence. Not so for those who live in blue zones. An important aspect of successful long-term management of addiction is learning to slow down, become conscious of how you spend your time, and align it with what is most important in your life.
  • Eat and drink wisely. Food and drink are common objects of addiction, and although abstinence from alcohol is possible, we cannot stop our relationship with food. The same goes for those who struggle with sexual addiction. It is not possible to remain abstinent from sex, we are sexual beings by nature and healing requires finding healthy ways to express our sexuality. The key is moderation, balance, and of course, eating more fruits and vegetables. Red wine has also been shown to increase longevity, but if it creates more problems than benefits (e.g., abuse, relapse) it should not be on your list.

There are some life problems that we should not manage, but solve, permanently. Homelessness, debt, acute pain, many developmental constrictions/deficits, legal problems, and suicide ideation. None of these things are healthy to manage over a long period of time, and our work should focus on resolution. Two significant problems most addicts need to resolve are lonliness and isolation. The key that lines-up with resolve is:

  • Be Connected to Others. Those who live the longest put family and loved ones first. They belong to communities that nurture and protect each other. Many share their spiritual faith in community, and hang out with people that have healthy habits, both physical and emotional. I have written a lot about how the essence of solving the problem of addiction is disconnecting from object-relationships and learning to engage in healthy, intimate connections with people. But to do this very often requires resolving barriers to human relationships. These barriers include unresolved trauma that lead to isolation, developmental stuck points, and debilitating shame and grief. This work is not easy, but necessary for relationships to blossom.

Many who struggle with addiction spend all their time on the pathological side of the equation. Treatments, interventions, fixes, cures, treatments….all intended to reduce or stop addictive behavior. This stuff is important, but at the same time it needs to be integrated with actions that optimize life.  Sometimes taking a break from intervening on addictive behavior and directing energy to what we want out of life can actually produce the outcomes we seek. Those who live in blue zones:

  • Have a clear purpose. They call it “ikigai” – the reason for which you wake-up in the morning. If your ikigai is that you don’t want to drink, smoke,  or act-out today, well…this is not a very compelling reason to get out of bed, it just gets you to focus on what you don’t want! The key is redirecting your life energy towards creating what you do want.

For additional information on blue zones, checkout the author’s website: bluezones and the book.

Confessions of a (Tiger) sex addict?…helping out CNN and the rest of the media

Tuesday, March 9th, 2010

The media love stories like Tiger Woods and his lady friends. Sex sells, it always has. Unfortunately, the media rarely care whether they are portraying an issue accurately, it is more about soundbites and sales. I know, because I used to get interviewed quite often for addiction-related stories when I worked for a large university teaching hospital. My 20 minute interviews would get slashed to 10 second clips on the nightly news. I have come to realize that it is not their fault, it is the way of news in our soundbite culture. But topics like addiction and what has happened with Tiger deserve more than soundbites. Addiction is an incredibly complex problem with no simple answers. It seems that despite this fact, the media have attempted to reduce Tiger’s problems to a diagnosis of sex addiction. In the clip below they interview a sex addict who provides evidence that sex clearly is an addiction, and that his experiences are similar to Tigers, check it out (and then keep reading):

Here is my own commentary about sex addiction and Tiger’s problems:

  • Far too much time is spent debating whether specific behaviors should be called addiction. The reporters above point out that many do not consider sex addiction a real psychiatric disorder because it does not exist in the current verision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). But the DSM is a socially-constructed diagnostic guide that is in the process of completely revamping the section dedicated to the diagnosis of addiction. Turns out we got it wrong for the past couple of decades! In my opinion, debates about whether people can be “addicted” to be specific objects (porn, food, internet, cell phone use) get us nowhere. For years therapists have treated patients with significant problems related to all these things, which usually come in packages of behavior. Our focus should be on understanding addiction as a relationship problem, not an object-specific problem.
  • How should we understand Tiger’s behavior? If addiction is about relationships, then we see that his pursuit of women  has been about something other than just sex. Any therapist in the country who has spent time dedicated to the topic of sex addiction (Patrick Carnes, Jennifer Schneider, Robert Weiss) will say that sex addiction is not about sex. It is about intimacy and emotional connection, or the lack thereof. As humans we are wired for relationships, but adverse childhood events (and trauma throughout life) lead to the avoidance of emotional experiences necessary for healthy emotional development. The result is a person like Tiger becomes an adult doing his best to negotiate the complexities of adult relationships with the emotional/relationship/intimacy skills of a child. No wonder he looks like a deer caught in headlights at news conferences.
  • As a person neglects their internal emotional world, very often the emotional energy (which has to go somewhere) gets displaced into academic mental activities or sports. It is not coincidental that many who suffer from addiction and untreated trauma are professional athletes or have professional careers requiring brain power and academic credentials.  A number of news commentators have pointed out that when Tiger came on the pro scene at age 19 his life never was the same. I would add that prior to the age of 19 his life was very different from other kids, how else was he able to go pro at 19? I am not an expert on Tiger Woods and have no knowledge of the events in Tiger’s early life that influenced his present behavior. And in truth, I don’t care, they are not my business. Each person’s past is their own.
  • We need to realize that we (even those who work in the media and are taking shots at him) are not so different from Tiger. On some level, we all struggle with past traumas, maintaining intimate relationships, sex, and developmental constrictions. And at times we all have engaged in excessive behaviors that help us disconnect from the world and our emotional pain (like even watching a bit too much professional sports). Sure, we may not have millions in the bank, be the world’s greatest golfer, or have the ability to act out in the ways he has, but just like Tiger, we all have our own life challenges. The real question is whether we are deepening our awareness of our shadow side, and doing the work necessary to own it, integrate it, and evolve our own mental/emotional health.

One final thing. Understanding why Tiger did what he did is very different then letting him off the hook. Let me be clear, I am not attempting to justify his behavior or say his acting out was not his fault. He needs to take responsibility for what he has done, and realize how his actions have hurt a lot of people. But we in society are so quick to judge others, and in a sick way relish watching those on top take big plunges. Instead of buying into the soundbite entertainment value of Tiger’s pain, we could benefit a lot more by exploring how his fall is a mirror for aspects of our own life.

Where the wild things are

Tuesday, March 2nd, 2010

Last night my wife and I went to a lecture by Joseph LeDoux, the author of The Emotional Brain and the Synaptic Self. His research has primarily focused on understanding the emotions of fear and anxiety through animal models, and how these emotions impact memory. One of my favorite chapters in the Emotional Brain is titled “Where the wild things are”  which describes the link between what he has learned about the amygdala, hippocampus, and common emotional problems. There were many take home gems from his talk, but the ones that have stayed with me the most are:

  • There is evidence that early traumas, even those that occur right after birth, get seared into the amygdala (emotional memory) and stay with us for life. Even though our ability to remember a trauma requires some development of the hippocampus, and likely does not begin until around the age of three, we can still react emotionally to particular triggers that we were exposed to prior to the age of three even if we have no memory of what happened.
  • Trauma changes the physical brain and how it operates, and in so doing, influences the behavior of the person. People respond very differently to trauma, even when exposed to the same traumatic events.
  • We are hard-wired to respond to threatening situations behaviorally before our rational brain evaluates a situation and makes a determination of whether something is dangerous. This is why we jump back when we see someting squiggly on the ground. It is an evolutionary, survival response. And if the squiggly thing is a killer snake, then good thing we jumped before we thought about it.
  • Traditional anatomy and physiology texts teach that our emotions come from the limbic system. LeDoux’s work has shown that emotions like fear involve many parts of the brain that extend beyond how we understand the limbic system. So…he believes we should do away with the limbic system - it does’nt exist.
  • The work of psychotherapy is about our neocortex  learning to exercise control over the evolutionary old emotional systems – over the amygdala.

So, translation for those who struggle with addiction. Addictive behavior can be understood as an unhealthy coping strategy to an amygdala that likely has some emotional wounds. This is why so many relapse prevention programs focus on mindfulness and CBT strategies for behavioral self-regulation. I continue to believe that all who struggle with addiction can benefit from trauma resolution work.