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I was curious to know which topics you might want me to speak about in my next podcasts. My poll on Facebook resulted in different requests. One of your requests was anxiety. Another one was addictions.
The latter one is a much more complex topic. I might need to preface, that I am not an addiction councillor. One way in which I can speak to the topic of addiction is in how far it has touched me personally. Another way is to share my understanding of the origin of addictive behaviour. I grew up with a close family member who was an alcoholic and thus have experienced how destructive and challenging an addiction is for the entire family. I was also at one point in my life in a relationship with a man who had an alcohol problem, until I realized that we cannot help somebody who is not ready to change. I had to make the self-loving choice to get out of that relationship.
I believe it is important not to downplay addiction, no matter how socially acceptable the substance or activity somebody engages with in an addictive way is. I believe that as parents, grandparents and educators we can make a huge difference for the next generation if we understand how addictions begin. Making sure that children do not learn addictive patterns of behaviour is as important as teaching them their ABC’s or math skills. What can we do to address addictions? Let’s explore why addictive energy shows up.
We need to begin with a definition of addiction. Recognizing addiction can be quite intuitive and you might feel that you will recognize an addiction when you see it, but in order to discus the topic we need to come to an agreement as to what qualifies as an addiction. An addiction can be defined as “something to which we have a strong predilection for and have little control over our actions in relation to the desire” (Dr. Alexandra Katehakis). We may find that a lot of our time is spent either engaging in the addictive behaviour itself, or in preparation for the experience of it. Unlike other things which we enjoy a lot, an addiction can have a certain component of secrecy and also shame connected to it. This is especially true when the behaviour we are engaging in is at odds with our own personal value system. Denial might also be part of the addiction.
Most people think of drinking or taking drugs when they hear the term addiction. However, there is a long list of addictive behaviours we engage in. Just a few examples of those behaviours are addictive eating, depending on alcohol, smoking cigarettes or marijuana, taking drugs or medications, addiction to sex or pornography, engaging in workaholic behaviour, addictive exercising or working out, gambling, compulsive shopping and overspending, addictive consummation of TV, video games or other electronics, obsessive engagement in social media and much more.
Why do we interact in an addictive way with certain substances or activities? What is going on with these behaviours?
These are all short-term coping mechanisms to distract ourselves from unpleasant emotional states. We have been conditioned to respond to emotional pain, sadness, overwhelm, stress and other uncomfortable emotions by eating, drinking, smoking, or distracting ourselves with any of the other above mentioned activities. Even nervous habits like nail biting, lip biting or twirling hair are subconscious attempts to deal with unpleasant emotions. They have become our pacifiers.
Short-term, these activities might feel like they give us some relief, calm or comfort us, but we have not addressed the real problems by engaging in these behaviours. We have taken our emotions and pushed them down with food, alcohol, drugs and we have distracted ourselves from acknowledging and feeling them.
Every emotion gives us feedback about unmet needs or another situation which needs to be addressed. When we are, for example, experiencing sadness or grief, it’s because we are feeling a loss. We need to process that loss. If we are feeling anxiety or fear, we need to take action steps to explore this and achieve greater safety. If we are feeling that something is unfair, it is a call to “make fair” or forgive and let go. If we are feeling anger, we need to investigate what more vulnerable feelings are underneath anger and need to be addressed.
Instead, we ignore the messenger. We are doing what we have learned as children when we were comforted with a pacifier or with food. Our caregivers didn’t know that the soother to make us stop crying, or the cookie to sweeten the disappointment, or the tub of ice cream for the heartache, or the bag of chips to stuff the anger down would become our automatic go-to and our basis for any addictive behaviour.
When I was teaching elementary school, we had an interesting unit one year, an extension to the regular curriculum, which was proposed by an older colleague of mine. The unit, which we taught in the grade 3 classrooms, was around recognizing unpleasant emotions and developing different action strategies. The idea was for the students to learn that soothing with food, TV or electronic activities only led to the emotions temporarily going away, while seeking human contact and talking to a person of trust was soothing, but also helpful in regards to changing the emotional state or addressing the underlying need that wasn’t met.
Addictive behaviour is often established in early childhood. Human beings need other human beings for regulation. It is the job of the primary caregiver to be present as a secure anchor for the child and as an interactive regulator who soothes, comforts and supports in a gentle and loving manner so that a state of high sympathetic arousal (fight or flight) or parasympathetic responses (freeze response or dissociation) can be turned into feeling safe and secure. What happens instead, due to the fact that parents themselves have not learned to rely on human interaction but to rely on outside stimulants, is that they model addictive behaviour when they are emotionally aroused.
Only 54% of people in our society today have experienced and learned a secure attachment style. Parents can only do the best based on what they know and understand. Children who do not have conscious and emotionally present caregivers inevitably find strategies in order to survive and often carry these energy-relieving patterns into adulthood. The result of these childhood experiences is a dependency on external soothing often combined with distrust that others are willing and capable to meet their needs.
Does or did your toddler have a pacifier? Once they are two and a half or three years old, you will probably be advised that it is time to take this soother away. Be aware that with this common habit they have already made the first experience of an object to go to for comfort. Make sure you let your child make the decision of how and when to give the soother away. I heard a lovely story the other day of a mother explaining to her daughter that she is so big now and doesn’t need the soother anymore but that her younger cousin now needs it. She is allowing the daughter to decide without pressure when it is time to wrap the soother up as a gift and pass it on.
At the same time, the mother of course also needs to offer her presence, and the presence of the grandmother who looks after her daughter a lot, as human alternatives to the soother. When we expect our toddlers to get rid of their pacifiers when they are not securely attached, they will inevitably develop other habits of soothing. They need to learn that they can count on their caregivers. We might not personally be able to be there for them all the time but we can direct them to trustworthy and conscious adults who will support us. That way we can provide that secure anchor for them and teach them how to soothe through human contact rather than addictive substances or activities.
The particular addictive substance somebody is abusing is only the secondary problem. The primary underlying problem is that we learn addictive behaviour. Rather than judging others for their addictive behaviour, let’s take an honest look in the mirror and examine in which ways we also tend to reach for outside stimulants. In which ways are we comforting or distracting ourselves instead of facing challenging emotions and addressing our unmet needs? The best thing we can do to change the problem of addiction is to start with how we handle our own emotions. Let’s throw out our adult pacifiers, so that we can teach the next generation a healthier approach to handling our emotional states. After all, our emotions are like a friend who never lies to us.
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