Addiction is a coping strategy. A coping strategy is a specific effort, both behavioral and psychological, that people employ to master, tolerate, reduce, or minimize stressful events. Alcohol, recreational drugs, prescription drugs, food, shopping, work … all of these and more are “drugs” we use cope with stress and depression.
I happened across an article by Dr. Joseph Troncale that specifically addressed the connection between drugs or alcohol and anxiety. He talks about how self-medicating with drugs or alcohol in order to calm down ends up generating more anxiety, culminating in a vicious downward spiral of stress à drugs à more stress à more drugs. In his words “This cycle of self-medication and rebound anxiety digs a deeper and deeper hole for the addicted person making treatment and breaking this downward spiral harder and harder as time goes by”.
Another way of looking at this is via the cycle of experience. Last week, I talked about how everything we experience goes through a natural cycle, or wave. If we choose to reach for a drug, not to give us a short reprieve before we deal with something that stresses us, but to replace that experience with something else, we set up a different cycle. In this natural cycle, we begin by sensing something in our environment, which brings it into our awareness. Then we decide if it’s meaningful to us at that moment, and if it is we deal with it. With something that makes us anxious, this means we tolerate the feeling of anxiety until the issue is dealt with.
Using a “drug”, on the other hand, means we bypass anything beyond the initial sensation, spiking instead to a high provided by the drug. Once the effect of the drug wears off, the feeling we suppressed with the drug resurfaces and we spike to a low. That low can feel unbearable and we self-medicate to avoid that feeling, setting up the next addition cycle. The original feeling never really goes away; instead it remains suppressed until we stop the addiction cycle.
There are a few ways of stopping the cycle. Dr. Troncale prefers the monitored gradual withdrawal approach. Twelve-step programs offer a different approach that work for many people. A third approach is finding a spiritual path that inspires and supports a person. What any one person chooses and finds works for them may not work for the next person.
The important thing is to know what is happening so that we can make an informed decision about how we want to live.
Maryanne Nicholls is a Toronto based, certified Psychotherapist offering a balanced approach to mental health. Please visit http://www.thejoyofliving.co for information on her services, or contact her directly to find out how she can help you reclaim the joy of living.