When we think of addiction, our mind automatically drifts towards drugs or alcohol or cigarettes. These are very obvious addictions, but we are all also subject to apparently smaller addictive behaviours that often blend less noticeably into everyday life and are more widely accepted as “normal”. These are things like over-working, over-eating, grabbing our phones at every opportunity, and so on. They are easier to explain away and don’t seem very significant until we look more deeply at what’s going on.
By looking at what’s behind these more socially accepted tendencies, we can better understand what’s at the root of all addictions and how we might begin to break their hold on us.
1. Why Do Addictions Happen?
In his excellent TED talk, Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong, Johanne Hari recounted a scientific experiment conducted decades ago about rats in cages, who were given 2 water sources to choose from, one pure and clean, and the other mixed with cocaine. The rats always compulsively drank the cocaine-water, even to the point of killing themselves, and this was taken for years as evidence that cocaine is addictive. However, several decades later, a researcher had the idea to redo the experiment, but to make the rats’ cages more comfortable, give them nice furniture and toys and another rat for company. Once their lives were made more comfortable and happy, they rarely ever chose the cocaine water and never drank it compulsively, opting instead for the pure water.
When everything is well in our lives, even the most addictive substances lose their hold on us. When something feels wrong in our lives, we gravitate towards addictive behaviours to divert us from having to fully experience the pain of this. We use them to block out any chance of encountering what it is we don’t like, or of having a moment to think about it.
Of course, we’re not consciously aware that this is what we’re doing. If we were, it would remind us that there’s something to avoid, and we don’t want to be reminded of that. So we lie to ourselves. If I’m working late every night, for example, missing out on family time and much more, I might complain to myself that there’s too much to do, rather than becoming more selective and efficient about my work.
If I find myself grabbing the chocolate every time I start to feel the pain of what’s wrong in my life, I might reason to myself that everyone needs a snack now and again – it’s normal – life would be pretty boring without it.
If I catch myself grabbing my phone whenever there’s a spare moment – which is now an almost universal trait, I might reason that it’s fine – everybody does it – there’s nothing wrong with browsing social media or checking my emails – it could even save me time later.
If I happen to notice I’m constantly seeking new partners, I might explain it away as a natural human need for companionship and intimacy.
Some of these reasons may or may not be true, but they are unlikely to be the real, core reason we’re doing these things. We’re actually using these activities to avoid having to face what’s painful in our lives.
If, for example, there’s no love in my marriage, or if I’m spending my life and energy doing a job with no purpose that leaves me feeling empty, or if I don’t have any close friends and feel lonely, or if I feel guilty about something I’ve done, or if I simply have a neurological tendency towards depression; those painful and uncomfortable feelings are likely to come to the surface whenever I don’t have something to occupy myself with.
Addictive behaviours give my mind something to do. My phone gives me an easy go-to distraction whenever I get a spare moment, as well as that dopamine hit from checking messages or social media. Unnecessary eating gives me something tangible to do, as well as the soothing action of chewing and evoking whatever subconscious association I have between food and nurturing.
When I find something that works for me – and it’s tried and tested – I can return to it every time I’m in any danger of giving my mind space to gravitate to what’s uncomfortable for it. My addictions, so it seems, protect me from pain.
2. It's Not Our Fault
It can be easy to feel guilty or inadequate for having addictions. Why can’t I just deal with life better, or be stronger in the face of difficulties, or just be ready to face my pain without feeling the need to run away from it? At least that way I’d be able to address it and move on.
But it’s not so simple. The great Canadian doctor and addiction specialist, Gabor Mate, offers us a deeper perspective on addictions. He traces all addiction back to the pain and trauma of unmet needs in early childhood, which pretty much everyone experiences to some degree. He makes the point through his own story.
Born in Hungary to a Jewish mother in 1944, just before the Nazis invaded, she spent the early months of his life in constant terror and fear for their survival, meaning she was not emotionally available in the way he needed. It was completely understandable, and came from her deep love for him, but still the absence of having his basic needs met left him, naturally, feeling abandoned and grieving deeply.
It’s an extreme example, but experiencing some form of unintentional trauma in early childhood is common, especially as parents’ lives become busier and more stressful.
When this happens, as it does to us all in some form, the infant’s natural response is to find something to distract themselves from the pain and find a substitute for whatever it is they’re missing. It IS a necessary protection, but until the root cause of it is addressed, this impulse will remain with us indefinitely and turn into addictive tendencies as we grow older.
When we understand it in this way, we are powerfully reminded that our addictions are not a sign of weakness or that there’s something wrong with us, they’re simply a sign that we missed something that we needed when we were young and helpless, which can’t possibly be our fault, so we are absolved of any feelings of guilt. We retain the responsibility for improving our situation, but can then do so without any self-recrimination.
Mate has recounted that flying back home after a recent speaking tour, he was feeling great about life, until he received a text from his wife saying she’d be 15 minutes late picking him up from the airport, and it vividly re-ignited the abandonment he’d felt as a child.
That’s why seeming insignificant things can send us into a deep malaise, and in modern society – with cupboards packed with junk food, phones already glued to us and a world full of other traumatised people to collaborate with us – it’s so easy to instantly revert to our addictions and so hard to break them.
It’s the latent pain within us that we’re so easily reminded of that pushes us into finding a distraction.
3. Addictions are Compensations
Drawing on his own experience, Mate has also observed that we choose our addictions to attempt to compensate ourselves for whatever it is that we feel we’ve missed in our development.
So, a work addiction might give us, for example, a sense of achievement, which we’d be craving if we were taught that it was only through our achievements that we could deserve love.
A food addiction might compensate for nurturing we feel we’ve missed out on.
An addiction to sex might give us a sense of love and acceptance that we feel we never had.
A gambling addiction offers us the prospects of reward and acknowledgement to give us a sense of being worthy, which we may have lacked.
In his own case, Mate developed, amongst other things, a work addiction as a doctor who was constantly on hand for his patients to give him that feeling of being wanted and needed that he missed so much from his childhood.
So we have an added incentive for our addictions. They not only distract us from the inner pain we’re feeling, but they also give us the illusion that we’re not lacking in the things we feel we are at all.
4. Beginning to Move Forwards
The problem is, these things are all a poor substitute, and can never replace what we feel the hole is in our lives. If we’re honest, our addictions always leave us feeling disappointed, but rather than concluding that they’re the wrong way to go, we instead assume that we just need to do them more and then it will be more successful, or at the very least we’ll be able to temporarily escape from what’s painful.
But the more I avoid what’s painful, the less able I am to address it or come to terms with it and make peace with it; and it will persist, unacknowledged, unchecked and unregulated within me, able to quietly grow under the surface.
As it grows, and gets triggered by smaller and smaller echoes of the past, more layers of trauma are added, and there’s more and more accumulated pain to escape from and so more and more reason to indulge in more addictive behaviours. It’s a downward spiral.
At one point, I’m likely to become conscious of what I’m doing and to glimpse what it’s costing me. I’ll realise I’m keeping myself in the same miserable situation by not allowing myself to confront what I need to in order to be able to make changes and build a better life. I might decide I’m now ready to face whatever pain I’m running away from, even if I don’t know what that is. When I find myself reaching for my particular addictive behaviour, I can decide in advance that I’m choosing instead to reject it, and to experience whatever discomfort comes up, however much discomfort that gives me.
When I get to this point – when I’m full of resolve – I can start to make decisions that might help me to make some progress.
And to minimise the risk of forgetting or losing resolve when the going gets tough, I might write a list of specifically what it is that I’m going to do, and read that list several times a day, reminding myself why it’s important. It might include resolutions like switching my phone off between 9pm and 9am for example, or allowing myself a quarter of a packet of cookies a day and no more, however desperately I feel like grabbing more. And I might share what I’m doing with someone else, to give me a feeling of accountability, which can make a big difference. Simply saying it out loud to another person can make it feel more real and give me more determination.
These are important steps, but unfortunately, it’s rare that this approach actually works in the long term. It requires a constantly positive state of mind in the face of a turbulent life that’s constantly triggering us. When we allow ourselves to feel the painful feelings that come up, any peacefulness we’ve managed to establish for ourselves is going to be profoundly challenged and the urge to avoid the discomfort is going to be turbo charged. At some point, we’re most likely to revert to the tried and tested solution we know so well, and the addictive behaviour returns.
If, as we now understand, the behaviour is just an expression of the pain, then closing the outlet while the pain remains in place is almost impossible, and even if it could be achieved, a new outlet would be required and a new addiction would most likely emerge.
5. Breaking the Habit
We need some sort of help from outside ourselves to be able to make a difference. It’s likely that a combination of approaches will be necessary and that the process of improvement will be an ongoing one.
There are many options – there are all kinds of therapies that deal with the physical effects of trauma in the body, some people gravitate to talking therapies where they explore the possible roots of their issues with a therapist, others may emphasise self-expression of various kinds or take a more spiritual perspective, or emphasis continual consciousness and effort to break the patterns.
Having decided that a change needs to be made, each person must find the path that feels right for them and has the best results for them. Unfortunately, there is no tried and tested series of steps that is right for everyone, and it’s likely to be a long learning process. If we’re lucky, we’ll feel intuitively drawn to something that takes us many strides forward and allows us to reclaim large parts of our lives.
At Heartful Healing, we recognise the real causes of addiction explained in this video, and that trapped energies in the body – including repressed emotions and the persistent vibrations of past traumas – are at the roots and need to be addressed.
We identify and clear these energetic imbalances in the system that are creating the need for addictive behaviours. We do this systematically, primarily using The Body Code, a life-transforming system of Energy Healing that has brought enormous changes to great numbers of people. With this, it’s possible over time to remove whatever imbalances are causing the compulsion to engage in addictive behaviours, as well as to increase the underlying feeling of well-being that takes away their power. And it’s possible to do this remotely, and without having to identify, discuss or relive painful experience from the past.
We also very highly recommend Heartfulness Meditation, a particular and very distinctive meditation system that I’ve been practising for more than 20 years and without which I’m unlikely to have made it to this point in my life. It’s also completely free. Over time, Heartfulness can lead to a transformed state of being, and many people who practice it find that they develop a constant nourishing feeling or presence in the heart, which is transformational in itself, but also gives us a positive and beneficial alternative to the distractions we seek through addiction.
For those who want more focused and in-depth work, particularly around achieving life-goals or overcoming addictions, we also have a new premium service called Quantum Coaching, where we supplement the Body Code with frequency therapy and high-quality Life Coaching to approach our issues from all angles. Once energetic imbalances are removed, the compulsion to addictive behaviours should be gone, but we still need to make some conscious effort to overcome the habits we’ve developed and entrenched while we’ve had them and may still cause us to be drawn to our old addictions. The difference is that these efforts can now bear fruit, whereas they would previously have proven hopeless. This is where the life-coaching comes it. We’ve teamed up with an award-winning life-coach who’ll be working with you to help you make these conscious efforts to overcome these.
We work with clients all over the world to help them be their best and live to their true potential, whatever issues they have. Visit heartfulhealing.co.uk to find out more.