Addiction Management Blog

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The College on Problems of Drug Dependence 2013 – my update

Sunday, June 23rd, 2013

For the past half-dozen years, I have been attending The College on Problems of Drug Dependence, better known as CPDD. The conference has been in existence since 1929 and this year is celebrating 75 years! It is the longest running conference on drug addiction problems in the US and is attended by the brightest minds in the field from all over the world (it even has its own blog). This year it was held in San Diego and included poster sessions, oral presentations, and plenty of networking. Usually I go it alone, but this year decided to drag my family along to make up for the year I brought them to the same conference in Reno where, ironically, gambling, drinking and smoking permeated the hotel and conference (yuck!).

There was a lot of great stuff this year as usual, so I thought I would highlight just a few things that really caught my attention.

  • traumafiveAdverse childhood experiences predict later substance abuse and addiction. We have known for a long time that 80-90 percent of those who go down the path of addiction start their journey early in life – during teenage-age years – most often as an adaptive response to coping with one or more adverse childhood experiences. I have written about the ACE study on this site, but what is new are studies that continue to evolve these findings in more detail, and help us really understand just how complex, pervasive, and critical it is to evaluate and treat underlying traumas in those who struggle with addiction. Current stats on abuse and neglect are frightening, and sadly addiction is not the only outcome of these cases. The British Journal of Psychiatry recently published a paper linking childhood adversity to all classes of mental health disorders. At the conference Cathy Spatz Widom presented some of her work that has involved following 1,575 kids from childhood through adulthood. This amazing study included 908 substantiated cases of childhood abuse and neglect processed by the courts from 1967 through 1971, and then matched this group with a control group of 667 children with no official record of abuse/neglect. The results from interviews over multiple decades provides strong evidence that early life experiences make a difference in the trajectories of our lives. Bottom line for those who struggle with addiction: intervention must involve addressing unresolved issues from the past that perpetuate addictive behavior.
  • Legalization of marijuana. I have not written about this topic on this site before, largely because I continue to struggle with exactly how I feel about it. While it is now legal in two states (Colorado and Washington) many other states are moving to legalize recreational use as well. On many fronts I agree that legalization makes sense, as the drug war has been a miserable failure. At the same time, Nora Volkow, the Director of NIDA, in cannabisher keynote address pointed out that marijuana use among teens is at an all-time high, while research findings are absolutely clear about the dangers of THC in young developing brains. This year the public policy forum was dedicated to this topic, and two great speakers from the RAND Drug Policy Research Center – Beau Kilmer and Rosalie Pacula – provided a lot of food for thought. Beau reviewed his seven P’s and Rosalie addressed the four primary public health goals: 1) prevent youth access, 2) prevent drugged driving, 3) regulate product content and form (potency), and 4) minimize concurrent use with alcohol. The “how” of accomplishing these goals is beyond this post, but if you dig into the RAND site you will find a recent publication that provides all the details.
  • Abuse of prescription drugs. If the 80′s were about cocaine, the 90′s about meth, we are now deeply entrenched in a time where “the” object of addiction are prescription drugs. In the past decade there has been a five-fold increase in treatment admissions for abuse of opioids, and overdose deaths related to pills have tripled in the past two decades. In some states more people die of pill overdoses than motor vehicle accidents. It is a problem that has gained national attention by many government agencies (and non-government groups), and was a hot topic this year at CPDD. Much of the focus was on abuse-deterrent formulations, which studies have shown have reduced abuse and diversion. This is a good thing, but at the same time such formulations are not necessarily reducing the number of people who struggle with abuse/addiction – they are just pushing them in another direction to other more easily abusable products or illicit drugs (what we call the “balloon effect”). The key point goes back to my first bullet point. We need to invest far more resources into prevention and early intervention since this is really the origin of the problem for most who struggle.
  • psilocybinPsilocybin and quantum change. Of all the cool things I learned this year, the one that surprised me the most was a workshop focused on the treatment benefits of psilocybin, a hallucinogenic compound from mushrooms that operates mostly on 5-HT-2a/c serotonin receptors. The session, led by Roland Griffiths and Herb Kleber, reviewed studies where psilocybin produced some remarkable mystical experiences for participants that rated among the most important events in their life! Here is a video clip describing one of the studies. The hope for those who struggle with addiction is that psilocybin may be an accelerated way to induce spiritual experiences that result in profound and lasting behavioral changes. The compound, when used appropriately in controlled conditions, appears to be non-physically toxic and virtually non-addictive. While the early findings are intriguing, I am not so sure we will see it on the list of evidence-based practices any time soon.

If you want to read more about the conference, check out the CPDD Blog.

Lastly, I know many of you won’t believe this, but CPDD has workshops that go from 8pm until 10pm at night, even Sunday – on Father’s Day! My wife never believed me until she saw it for herself. This is a dedicated group of people! So, after one of these very long evenings, I ventured out into the evening and did a little picture taking. Here are two of my favorites:



Addiction is about three relationships

Friday, June 29th, 2012

There has been a push to understand and define addiction in our society as a brain disease, primarily because of the strong evidence from neuroimaging studies that have identified clear changes in the brain for those who struggle with addiction. At the same time, others have provided evidence that addiction is an adaptive response to underlying, unresolved, adverse childhood experiences (i.e., the ACE Study). We know the truth is that both are right. Roughly 80 percent of those who go down the path of addiction begin  prior to the age of 15. So early life experiences are critical to understanding this problem. Although the ACE study provides significant insight into the roots of addiction, we must also factor in to the equation a wide range of risk and protective factors, as well as genetic vulnerability. While I support incorporating all of these perspectives into our understanding of addiction, I believe how we understand this challenging problem should link directly with how we treat it. For me, this has led to a reconceptualization of how I understand and define this problem, one that I want to share with you.

Addiction is about three relationships with Self, Others, and the All. Let me explain.

The relationship with Self is best characterized by shame. Early adverse childhood experiences (and other risk factors) set-up a belief system that something is wrong with Self, and addictive behavior over time becomes a powerful way to manage the trance of feeling unworthy. To add fuel to the fire, when attempts to stop addictive behavior fail (due to changes in the brain), shame and feelings of unworthiness deepen even more, creating a destructive cycle that results in great pain for the Self and those around the person struggling. The relationship with Others is best characterized by isolation. I have written about this particular relationship in past posts. Isolation occurs because the developmental capacities necessary to initiate, form, and maintain healthy relationships with others become constricted over time, due to spending considerable time with objects of addiction (e.g., alcohol, drugs, porn, food) instead of people. In essence, adults who struggle with addiction are childlike in their ability to be in relationship with others. This makes it hard to hold jobs, parent kids, remain in committed, intimate relationships, and build community. It also helps explain why about 80 percent of those behind bars struggle with addiction, as well as many who return home from war and feel isolated and disconnected from those who have not had similar war experiences. The third relationship is that with the All (e.g., God, Atman, the One, Yahweh, Brahman, Allah), or what 12-step programs call higher power. It is a relationship I have devoted little time to on this blog, but one that I intend to give far more attention to in the future. It is best characterized by Truth and Love. The truth comes from experiencing all that addiction is – both its pleasures and pains. It is no coincidence that at the moment of orgasm, the instant the body feels the sensations from a drug, or the second one realizes they have had a Big Win on the craps table, the words “Oh God” come forth. Going deep into addiction is a search for the All, for truth, and ultimately for love.

These three relationships require attention and healing if we are to be successful at helping those who struggle with addiction. Our interventions should target all three relationships, which I should add, are hardly independent, but linked together in a seamless system. Work on one relationship impacts the others. There are two broad paths or categories of interventions: 1) the path of action, and 2) the path of non-action or contemplation. The first path is what we are accustomed to associating with typical interventions and treatments. The path of action happens in our waking states, when we “do” things. I believe there are five broad actions that are important on this path: motivate, evaluate, manage, resolve and create.  The path of non-action or contemplation is equally important, and involves using meditation practices to detach from objects of addiction and embrace our spiritual nature. If you consider meditation an action, then I guess you could make an argument that perhaps there is only one path. But doing contemplative work in essence is about “just being” which takes us back to a path of non-action. If it sounds a bit confusing, it is to me too. And to round out this discussion, both paths meet in consciousness. More about this to come.

As a parting thought on this topic, engaging all three relationships allows us to incorporate all we know about addiction. We can incorporate insights from neuroscience, medications, and healthy living into our treatments and interventions. And, we can evaluate outcomes more holistically when we consider how our interventions impact and change the three relationships.

Investing in Addiction Treatment: Is it Worth the Cost?

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

I recently talked with a Huffington Post reporter about the Real Tab for Rehab: Inside the Addiction Treatment Biz. In our discussion, I pointed out that to a large extent we still have an addiction treatment system that provides short-term (acute) treatment for a long-term (chronic) problem (this key point did not make the article). In addition, the current system treats less than 10 percent of those who could benefit from some kind of intervention at a cost that will likely reach $34 billion by 2014, more than double the spending from 2005. In my opinion, a lot of money is being spent on helping a minority of those who struggle with addiction, and sadly being spent on expensive residential treatment stays that research indicates is not more effective than less expensive outpatient care. Bottom line, the billions being spent could be invested in those who struggle far more wisely.

Not too many years ago I was attending an addiction conference where a number of  treatment centers were advertising their services. I struck up a conversation with one of the marketing reps of a well-known residential program. She explained to me that because of the escalating cost of treatment, her team had developed a program that was only ten days in length, thus reducing the total treatment cost to about 15K while maintaining the effectiveness of a longer residential stay. As I always do in these situations, I asked her about proof that the program worked. She had a well-rehearsed answer, but like most treatment programs, no reliable and valid measures had been employed to measure outcomes. Even if some had been used, we know that 10 days hardly scratches the surface of what needs to happen to help someone with addiction.

Am I opposed to residential programs? Not at all. At times I believe these programs are life-savers and provide a strong foundation upon which to build a solid outpatient management plan. Many employ very skilled, compassionate, and hard-working counselors that know how to help patients stuck in addiction. Some charge reasonable rates for their services and avoid the “spa-like” add-ons that contribute nothing to long-term outcomes. What I am opposed to is marketing that feeds on the vulnerabilities of the populations that seek out their help. Many parents will go to the ends of the earth to help their addicted child and not think twice about mortgaging their home and draining their savings if someone tells them their program will save their kid. Even for those with money, the idea that one can “buy good outcomes” if just the right program is utilized is simply not true.

What can you do? You can spend your time understanding the nature of addiction, what science has to say about treatment interventions, and then spend your money wisely on what will result in the best possible long-term outcomes. What are some of the best financial investments in treatment? This slide from a recent presentation provides you a quick reference point for understanding how a number of treatment interventions rank in terms of scientific evidence. Notice that brief interventions, addiction medications (Campral, Revia), the Community Reinforcement Approach (CRA) and motivational enhancement interventions all rank very high in terms of evidence. Also notice what ranks far down the list: residential treatment, Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) and 12-step facilitation therapies, and general counseling. Note that it is not that these things cannot be useful in overcoming addiction, they can be very helpful. But when you compare their effectiveness through the lens of science to other options, and take into consideration the cost of each, it is clear we could be spending the billions of treatment dollars far more wisely.

The goal is to maximize the best possible intervention outcomes over many years (and for some a lifetime), not a few weeks or months. To do this, we need to employ the best interventions at the lowest cost. Combining free community resources, outpatient therapists, medications, self-help groups, and motivational incentives will give you the biggest bang for your buck.

A long walk to Tucson

Monday, February 28th, 2011

As I laid in bed thinking about the next day, about my turn, fear flooded my entire body. I was like a pressure cooker with no relief valve, and I knew I had to do something fast. I dressed quickly and left my room, walking outside into the cold Arizona night. The black sky was speckled with a million shining stars lighting up the desert floor, casting shadows on giant, prickly cactuses. I walked quickly along the side of the road, exhaling fear with every breath. I began to feel better, more grounded and intent on making it into town. Every few minutes I would squint as a car’s oncoming headlights blinded me, but I never missed a step. After some time, I felt a sharp pain in my side. Then my left calf began to tense up and I wondered how far I had walked. I wondered even more about how far I had left to go, whether walking alone in the middle of the night on a dark road was such a good idea, and whether I would survive confronting my fears in an experiential therapy group the next morning.

My week-long experience in Tucson was only one of a number of therapeutic journeys I have taken during the past two decades. At the time I took my long walk in the Tucson desert I understood very little about how professional therapy ultimately translates into a better life. I was there because that is what I thought I was supposed to do to get better. It was a challenging experience, like many of the therapeutic journeys I have been on, because the essence of the therapeutic work was emotional. Since I had lived much of my life in my head, learning to connect with my body and feelings was not natural, particularly when I felt I had so little control over these things. Although I can honestly say it was not the most enjoyable week, after it was over I felt more complete, more integrated, more able to be in the world in a broader context. Some of the emotional pressure had been released safely, and I felt more alive. Such outcomes have always been the reason I keep going back for more, even to this day.

What I now realize after years of personal therapeutic work, counseling patients, and studying the research on treatment outcomes, is that good therapy advances developmental capacities that make healthy relationships possible. In addition, by expanding developmental skills, it becomes possible to optimize overall mental and emotional functioning, leading to an expansion of life opportunities, a better alignment between innate talents and employment, and a more meaningful life. What I have also realized is that advancing developmental capacities does not necessarily require professional treatment, but can result from a number of life experiences.

Although medications and various cognitive-behavioral therapies so often used in addiction treatment play an important role in solving the problem of addiction, they fall short of a permanent solution because they are not intended to progress emotional development. When I reflect back on the many therapists I have worked with, self-help groups I have attended, experiential programs I have endured, and the wide range of therapeutic approaches I have subjected myself to, it is clear now that the most important ingredient in all of them was people, not specific therapies, medications, or programs. Treatment works best when in the context of relationships, the skills necessary to initiate, develop, and maintain healthy relationships – skills underdeveloped because of time spent with objects – are nurtured.

The good news is that anyone, at any stage of life, no matter how badly addicted to objects, can evolve their developmental capacities and engage in life in a deeper and more meaningful way.


“Calm Energy” as an antidote to addiction

Monday, October 18th, 2010

I have mentioned Dr. Robert Thayer before on this site, but have not dedicated a blog entry to his ideas until now. When I first read his book, Calm Energy: How People Regulate Mood with Food and Exercise, I was immediately impressed by the implications of his  work for those struggling with addiction. In a nutshell, he provides a very strong case that many of our moods and unhealthy eating habits have in common two biopsychological dimensions that he calls energy and tension. In an earlier book (The Origin of Everyday Moods, 1996) he describes how the dimensions can be used to create the illustration below.

The above four states represent different expressions of our energy and level of stress. Calm Energy is the quadrant where we find our best moods. We have energy and no tension. It is similar to the states people call flow or being in the zone. It is a place we want to be, where our attention is focused, we are productive, and we feel good about life. It is not a place where addiction is found, and in fact, is really the antidote to cravings and addictive appetites. The opposite of Calm Energy is Tense Tiredness. This unfortunately is the place many of us find ourselves these days, in large part due to the speed of life, decreases in sleep, and increases in stress. It is a place of low energy, bad moods, anxiety and depression. It is also the state where addiction thrives. When we feel tense and tired there is a natural tendency to want move away from this state, and addictive behaviors are among the most powerful, reliable, quick, and easy ways to disconnect from Tense Tiredness. I say disconnect because engaging in addictions does not really provide an antidote to this state. Instead, it may in the short run give us more energy, and change our mood, but only temporarily. When the addictive behavior ceases, chances are good that what follows will be more tension and lack of energy, perpetuating the relapse cycle.

I like to think about Calm Tiredness as a lazy Sunday afternoon. In general, it is a pleasant state, but often not as productive or positive as Calm Energy. Nothing wrong with it, and in fact we need down time to recharge our batteries. The final state, Tense Energy, is a state where we are quite productive and busy, often due to deadlines and being rushed for time. Many Type A personalities fit this state, as well as those who like to live on the edge and seek out thrills.

In my own life I find the model incredibly useful in helping me understand my own eating, exercise, sleep, and mood patterns. One of the best things you can do for yourself is take a day (or two) and track your level of energy and tension by the hour. Rate each on a scale of 1 to 10 and then plot the results on a graph. It is revealing to see just how significantly these states change in the course of an average day. The graph also helps to identify intervention points for: (a) preventing relapse, (b) developing optimal times for exercise, and (c) determining whether we are getting enough sleep. In addition, the graph can help you understand how time of day subtly influences how we think about life problems.

In sum, addiction most often shows up when we are tense and tired, but can also occur in the other states as well. Among the most significant points Dr. Thayer makes in his book is that the single best way to cultivate a life of calm energy is by developing a regular habit of exercise. Perhaps that is why the National Institute of Drug Abuse has already invested over 4 million in research into the connections between addiction and exercise.

Dr. Gabor Mate, continued…

Monday, July 5th, 2010

The following interview with Dr. Mate provides additional context for his work and beliefs about addiction. One surprising statement he makes is that less than five percent of his patients overcome their addictions - not the best of outcomes. Of course what “overcome” means and how to define outcomes are messy topics, but I am far more optimistic about  the tenacity of the human spirit to change. Addiction is most definitely a challenge, but one reason for poor outcomes has been the lack of understanding about the nature of addiction, and the need for a comprehensive solution like MRC. Watch the interview, and then let me know your thoughts about Dr. Mate’s conclusions.

Living Hero Podcasts: Dr. Gabor Mate Interview

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

I recently learned about the website Living Hero that produces podcasts of “living luminaries and mavericks” hosted by Jari Chevalier. Her most recent interview was with Dr. Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician with a broad range of life experience (and wisdom) on topics including: mind-body medicine, stress and trauma, ADD, and addiction. I first heard about Dr. Mate when a close therapist friend told me about his book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction. Shortly thereafter, another friend said he had been to Portland and spoke at a college campus. Then…the podcast interview. Call me slow, but eventually I do pay attention when the universe is attempting to tell me something – like pay attention to this guy!

After listening to the insightful interview by Jari (please go listen now), it is clear that much of what Dr. Mate believes is very much in line with the information on this website and blog. He advocates understanding addiction as a coping response to underlying pathologies, namely adverse childhood experiences. These early events impact brain development, as well as other developmental capacities, resulting in the need for relationships with objects that help regulate stress and emotion cycles. Although much of the discussion focused on addiction as a coping response (feel better), I believe Dr. Mate would also agree that addictive behavior is perpetuated because it feels good – the brain likes it!

I remember a case involving very successful business owner who decided to have lunch with her girlfriends at a local diner that just happened to also have newly installed video poker machines. Having no history of gambling behavior, she thought nothing of putting a buck in the machine to see what would happen. Minutes later she experienced a “big win” – a $600 dopamine rush. So…the following week she told her girlfriends they should meet again for lunch at her lucky restaurant. She put another dollar in the machine and amazingly she won the jackpot again, another $600 big win. That was all it took for her brain chemistry to rearrange some important neurons that led to an out-of-control gambling addiction. Her husband brought her to the clinic because she was unable to stop playing video poker, was blowing thousands of dollars per day, and neglecting her business and family. Although she did love how winning made her feel, in the end, her relationship with video poker machines was just another substitute for the human intimacy she so longed for, but struggled to obtain.

Addiction is a very complex problem with no easy answers. What I like most about Dr. Mate’s approach to healing is that it is humane, sensible, and incorporates harm reduction strategies. More information about his work can be found on his website. But if you can’t wait to read his book, then listen to the podcast byJari, it is well worth your time.

The Sanctuary Model: why you should know about it

Saturday, May 15th, 2010

Dr. Sandra Bloom is a psychiatrist largely responsible for the creation of the Sanctuary Model, which is both a framework for treating trauma, as well as an organizational change model that integrates evidence-based trauma interventions with the benefits of therapuetic communities. The brillance of this model is that it optimizes the safety and healing of all parties involved in social systems of care: patients and clinicians, prisoners and judges, victims and advocates, addicts and counselors. It is a model, in my opinion, that is applicable across all organizations no matter what their purpose, because it provides a roadmap for how humans should treat one another, no matter what position they may find themselves in.

Why do we need it? Because most social/healthcare service organizations are in crisis. U.S. healthcare problems were detailed in a number of publications by the Institute of Medicine, with outcomes indicating that the U.S. has the most expensive healthcare system in the world, yet ranks far down the list in terms of overall quality. But it is not just our healthcare system that is in dire need of overhauling. Our education, criminal justice, mental health, child welfare, and…yes, our addiction treatment system are all struggling to meet the needs of the populations they serve. The Santuary Model suggests that the problems are rooted in unhealthy systems, not individual people. If we understand the system, we then stand a chance of making changes within the system that ultimately translate into better outcomes for all involved.

Across the different social systems, the problems are similar: reduced funding, decreased training and education, more paperwork, more surveillance and  micromanagement, greater staff turnover, and lots of stress across all levels of organizations. These factors then translate into organizations that are chronically stressed, attempting to do more with less, always operating in a reactive/crisis mode, ultimately leading to folks being chronically hyperaroused. In this state, it is like Brian Farraher, CEO of Andrus Children’s Center has said, “Managing like your hair is on fire.”  Stress leads to a loss of basic safety and trust, a breakdown of emotional intelligence, behaviors that result in more conflict, and staff who feel disempowered. As relationships become strained, more autocratic approaches to leadership (counseling/healthcare/justice) emerge, and then folks just stop talking. In essence, organizations stop learning. The outcomes are costly for all involved.

The Santuary Model is the antidote. It acknowledges that stress, trauma…life problems, exist not only in the clients who show up for help (or are mandated for help), but also in the helpers. The served and the servers are mirrors of each other, and both require focus and attention on seven commitments:

Implementing the Sanctuary Model in organizations, and incorporating the commitments into all of our lives, means embracing our responsibility to the common good of all people, to our future, to our planet. The details of the commitments, and how best to implement them are documented on the Sanctuary Website and in Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Species.

If we ignore the warning signs so clearly right in front of us, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” HG Wells, Outline of History, 1920

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.

Managing Addictive Behavior in Practice

Tuesday, December 29th, 2009

food-safety2There are many things I struggle to manage in my life, including time, food (or more correctly my weight), exercise and making sure my dog gets her heart medicine every eight hours. I have other vices as well, but what links all of these things together is that they are ongoing issues that come and go in my life. At times I eat healthy, exercise regularly, and use my time well. Yet at other times I find myself scarfing down junk food, skipping workouts all together, and feeling like a mouse on a never-ending treadmill.

Addictive behavior is similar in that it also comes and goes to varying degrees over time, it is not a constant. Although some can find permanent solutions to end particular behaviors (“I just stopped smoking and never went back to it”), for most people, even if one behavior goes away, another usually takes its place perpetuating the problem of addiction just in a different form. Because objects of addiction can also come and go, it is easy to see why dealing with addiction can become so hard – different addictions, different times, different problems, but most often sharing many underlying traits. As a result, I believe that the most humane way of dealing with addiction is by utilizing a management approach that aims to decrease harm for all behaviors over time, and improve ones quality of life. Too often I see people going in and out of treatment, attempting desperately to put a lid over the behavior and banish it forever, only to get depressed and frustrated when it returns in its original form, or surfaces in another addiction. So how do we manage behavior? Whether it’s addiction or giving my dog her pills, I have found four key things that make a difference:

meditationAwareness: You cannot manage anything if you are not aware of it and how it plays out in your life. Awareness is not so easy these days because we are bombarded from every side with people vying for our attention. But you must increase your awareness of the behavior you wish to change if you have any chance of success. How do we do this? (1) utilize reminder messages on your computer, phone, on sticky notes, put them on electronic calendars that email you reminders, set alarms to go off at critical times, (2) talk with someone about the behavior on a regular basis and process your progress – could be a therapist, friend, pastor, mentor, coach, spouse – who does not really matter so much as just having an ongoing connection and doing it, (3) utilize a form of meditative practice to help clear away psychic junk and make more room to help you stay aware of what is truly important to you, and (4) set-up your environment in such a way as to increase awareness: find new routes to work that avoid high-triggery places, get rid of the extra refrigerator in the garage where you store beer, add things that you want to focus on instead of the addiction like an easel for painting, a musical instrument, or perhaps a pet if you don’t have one.

KISS: Yes, the tried and true Keep It Simple Stupid (OK, maybe the stupid needs to go) applies to managing behavior change. The more complicated you make it, the less likely you will succeed. Simple means we don’t try to change too many things at once, and we do our best to find the simplest and easiest way to accomplish our goal. Earlier this year I significantly changed my diet and felt great. More energy, better sleep, all the things promised from this new way of eating materialized. Yet a few weeks later I was back to my normal, disappointed that I could not maintain what I started. But I shouldn’t have been. I changed too much too fast. We humans live so much by habit, and the many routines our brains lock into very often determine our behavior even when we desperately want to behave differently. In a recent post I mentioned how the environment also sets us up, particularly for making it difficult to eat healthy. We have to be begin by making small incremental changes that support new brain connections, new habits. Change is a process with many different drivers, the key is finding the one that works best, and just staying on the road.

statisticsStatistics. For many statistics is a foreign language, existing in a country you never want to visit. But in truth, we live statistics every day of our life. We read sports statistics, check weather reports, listen to stock updates, and hear percentages thrown around in the news. Statistics is the science of making effective use of data, and in the case of managing behavior, there are many things that can be helpful to track over time: days abstinent, relapses, weight, money lost, time spent on particular activities, etc. We track things because of our limited ability to keep a lot of this in our head, to remember the specifics. Keeping a record of progress provides a clear indication of how well we are staying on the road. It provides us feedback that is critical to successful change. Our tracking methods can be as simple as keeping a tally on a notepad, or creating more elaborate outcomes on spreadsheets. I have seen a number of those struggling with addiction get very caught up in statistics, particular days abstinent, where relapses become devastating events instead of opportunities for growth and learning. Statistics should always be used to help us grow, learn, and better manage our behavior over time.

group-hug2Social Support: You’re aware of what you want to manage, you put a program in place that is simple, easy to stick with, and does not change too much too fast, and you begin to track your progress. The final key and perhaps the most important is understanding that managing any behavior change we make is embedded within the social systems in which we exist: family, school, work, clubs, self-help groups, church, sports, neighborhoods. We are social creatures by nature and influenced greatly be those around us. Successful change requires taking stock of our social connections, both those that support our change and are positive, and those that clearly contribute to perpetuating problems we wish to stop. I have said many times that addictions are ultimately about relationships, and the goal is to replace unhealthy relationships with objects with healthy relationships with people. This is an ongoing process of learning how our past relationships influence our present ones, and how we can heal past wounds and emotionally mature in a way that allows to both receive and give love.

As we begin a new year (and a new decade), many of us will set goals to better manage behaviors in our life. Whether the desire is to reduce drinking, drug use, or have a more fulfilling relationship with food or sex, we stand a much better chance of succeeding when we utilize the above four keys. Happy New Year!