Dr. Adam L. Front, Psychologist


Dr. Adam's Blog

Everyone's addicted - what will you do about yours?

Posted on September 4, 2010 at 3:11 AM



     Most people think that addiction is a problem for a minority of the population. It's "those people," and certainly not me. But suppose that addiction is something more to do with the way our brains are wired than any particular substance that people abuse?

      Statistically, about 10% of the population is alcoholic. Probably another 10% are addicted to either street drugs (cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamine, etc.) or prescription drugs (pain pills, tranquilizers, amphetamines or other stimulants prescribed for ADHD, etc.). So we have about 20 of the population accounted for with addictive substances.

      But addiction is not limited to just substances. Many alcoholics or drug addicts get clean and sober and their addiction grabs onto a new source of gratification: food, sex, gambling, shopping, video games or other screen addictions, hoarding or other compulsive behaviors can be just as addictive as any mind altering substance. So can compulsive working, compulsive and impulsive angry and violent behavior, or taking care of others to the detriment of ourselves (also known as codependency). It is likely that at least 50 to 70% of the general population has compulsive behavior in one or more of these areas. For some, this is the original focus of their addictive tendency - perhaps they never really got hooked on a substance but instead were drawn to one of these behavioral addictions.

      If we include these other non-substance addictions, there are not too many people who are not affected. Some people are addicted to being right, or proving that others are wrong. This is one of the teachings of Buddhism and other spiritual paths that originated in Asia - that the cause of our suffering as humans is our "attachment" - we could as easily refer to it as addiction - to our view of the way things are and the discrepancy between between our view of reality and the way we think or know things "should" be.

     Many people have moral judgments about people who are addicted. This is because we have been taught that the mind is supposed to be the captain of the ship. If I have a problem, I should be able to decide to do differently and then do so on my own without any help, and if I cannot make this change by myself, then I am a failure. If we cannot think our way into behaving the way we believe we should, then we either rationalize why it is not our fault (or why it is okay to continue on as we have), judge ourselves harshly and punish ourselves severely, or bounce back and forth between these two positions at different times. Even the expression we often use to describe doing something on the basis of sheer solitary willpower does not make any sense. We say, "I'll just have to pull myself up by my bootstraps." If we look at the literal image of this expression it tells us much. If you were sitting on the floor, intent upon standing up, how successful would you be if you grabbed the backs of your shoes and pulled really hard? You could do this as hard as you like, repeatedly, and the most you would do is rock back and forth on your butt very vigorously, but standing up by that method is out of the question. Thinking it so is just not enough.

     If we examine the 3 sources of our behavior - thoughts, feelings, and bodily urges, we may see things differently. If I have an emotional, unreasoning urge to eat ice cream, for example, but I think that I should not eat it because I should lose weight and get healthy, it is common for the feeling to win over the idea. Similarly, if I think I should go to the gym and work out, but I really don't like to, I will become one of the people who keep health clubs in business by continuing to pay for membership but never using the facility. If my body and nervous system are set up to crave gratification but my thinking tells me that giving in to these urges is unhealthy, I will be prone to either rationalizing why it is okay "just this once," or "in moderation,"or decide that it's a good idea but I'll start tomorrow. It is clear that the body and the emotions are stronger than our thinking. Either by themselves is enough to overcome the best of mental intentions. If the body and the emotions gang up on our resolutions,we are done for. It just isn't a fair fight.

     The fact is that in order to make a change, we need to do something different. Many people approach therapy with the idea that if we talk about things with a therapist for long enough, we will gain insights that will change our thoughts and feelings so that we can then do things differently. The reality is that this can take a very long time.  However, if I do something differently in a planned and consistent way, even if I don't want to, even if I don't believe it will work, even if it seems "silly," it will often work. Acting differently is more likely to produce a change in our thoughts and feelings (due to the observation that if we do things differently we get a different result). This is much more often effective than focusing on our thoughts and feelings while doing the same things as we always have; although this approach has the possibility of giving us a vision of what we would like to be, at the same time it confirms that we will always get what we don't want because our actions have not changed, and doing the same actions will produce the same results time and time again.

      Twelve step recovery programs sometimes get a bad rap. People think that they are cults. In fact, they are, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Of course, nobody in Alcoholics Anonymous or Overeaters Anonymous is offering people Jonestown suicide punch or advocating preparing to leave Earth when the alien ships arrive. Technically, a cult is a subculture, a group with its own behaviors, language and customs, different from the dominant culture. These subgroup norms in 12 step groups are the vehicle of the needed behavior change that leads to a different experience of life.

     For anyone who has tried to stop addictive behavior and failed, trying something new and different is often what is needed. What have you got to lose except your inability to resist the compulsion? Please see the links to various 12 step resources on my links page. It is recommended that you try at least 6 different meetings of whatever 12 step group pertains to your particular problem before you decide whether or not it is a useful solution for you.


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