Challenges of recovery from behavioral addiction It is difficult to change any behavior that has become routine, let alone one that has reached the level of addiction, unless there are powerful and consistent rewards for ceasing the behavior or equivalent adverse consequences for continuing it. With behavioral addictions, all of the usual denial patterns and resistances to arresting the addiction are found in full force, but there are other obstacles as well. The addict is almost always deeply divided and double-minded about stopping his or her addictive behavior, even when they are aware that the behavior is creating serious problems for themselves and others. This is the nature of addiction; the addict is obsessed with continuing the activity, while at the same time having lost the power to stop of their own accord. To continue with the compulsive activity, the addict will employ an assortment of mechanisms common in all addictions, including denial, justification, and minimization. The person in the grip of an addictive behavior is under the illusion that he can stop whenever he wants to. When the addiction has taken root in the person there is an internal war going on with the person. In his clearer moments, the addict glimpses that his life has gotten out of control, and that he is paying a high price for indulging in the addictive behavior. He recognizes that the behavior causes him pain and misery, while also wreaking havoc on his family’s life. On the other hand, the addict has adopted the behavior to escape his problems, to cope with life. To continue with the compulsive activity, the addict makes the decision that, on balance, the behavior is worth whatever problems may come with it.
One example of such a thought process is the codependent who from childhood has learned that he can obtain a degree of love or acceptance, while blotting out his own pain, by focusing on helping and rescuing others. Despite experiencing the futility of this behavior and suffering painful consequences, the codependent may find it hard to acknowledge that the root of his problems is his addiction — his neediness and dependence on others. He may minimize, believing his behavior is not as bad as he sometimes thinks. He may justify his helping as being a good and Godly behavior — or he may deny entirely that he has a problem with compulsively helping others, despite the constant rejection and despair he feels. Recovery for this type of addict requires a complete change in belief system. What he has learned as a child is unhealthy and detrimental to his well-being. Admitting such a thing is painful. Recovery for this person is not as straightforward as for someone addicted to a substance. For the behavior addict, solving the problem of addiction is more nuanced. The codependent must learn healthy ways to relate to others. The same applies to the workaholic or the sex and love addict. Each first has to challenge core beliefs, and then to recognize how their behavior in a particular area has become detrimental. From that point, they must start to learn healthy ways of living. For a workaholic this may mean not burying themselves in work when confronted with a life problem. For a sex addict, it may mean not using sex as a way to escape life, and rather to face it in healthy ways. Recovery from behavioral addictions in this sense is therefore not as straightforward as for a specific substance. behavioral addictions require that the person in recovery address a whole range of core beliefs about themselves and their place in the world and how they relate to others. Recovery means adapting behaviors into healthy forms. Imagine an addict who has engaged in a behavior for many years as a way to live life. Now imagine what that person has to do to recover from it. Consider a person addicted to heroin. Though extremely detrimental, the substance has acted as his ally, has protected him and given him pleasure through life’s trials. The same holds true for the behavior addict: though the activity is damaging, he is bound to feel a keen sense of loss and grief at the prospect of giving it up. On top of that he has to learn a complete new set of skills on how to deal with life without the aid of an ally that’s been with him for years. This is not something that will happen overnight. This is not a one off job, but a process that entails a long time of trial and error — along with daily practice. As with the heroin addict, the behavior addict’s way of thinking has become abnormal and distorted. They have developed an obsession with the behavior, focusing on the relief and pleasure it brings, and pushing out of their minds the inevitable dire consequences. The addicted gambler believes his luck will change this time, that he will soon hit a winning streak. No matter that he has ruined his financial life. The sex addict carries on with his philandering despite risks to his marriage, his reputation, and his health. These addicts are in the grip of a form of insanity that compels them to continue. They are engaged in something they can neither control or stop of their own accord.
Foundations of recovery from behavioral addiction Recovery from any kind of behavioral addiction must start with the fundamental acknowledgment by the addict that they have become powerless over their problematic behavior and have lost the ability to control it or stop it based on will power alone. They have to recognize that their addictive behavior is a compulsion, that it is no longer a choice, or a recreational activity, or a simple habit. The addict has to face that the behavior grew out of a deep-rooted need and that though it provided relief, it long ago became unhealthy and detrimental.
A large part of the addict’s reluctance to stop his addictive behavior results directly from his longstanding intimate relationship with his addiction as a source of security. Despite the great harm the activity has done the person, the addict actually feels sheltered and protected in actively participating in his destructive behavior. Meanwhile, in the absence of his addictive behavior, the person feels painfully insecure, exposed, and liable to all kinds of harm. The addictive activity has a pacifying effect. The behavior can always be depended upon to produce feelings of safety and security — despite the reality he has experienced. In the case of the food addict, food has given him a sense of ease and comfort in the face of his problems. Obsessive, mindless eating allows him to escape, to blot out the world and its problems. For this kind of behavior addict to acknowledge his overeating as something that needs addressing – that it is, in fact, an impediment to dealing with other problems in his life – is difficult.
Recovering from this compulsion, though not easy, is possible, and has been accomplished many times. But it does require a complete change in beliefs and attitude, along with how to deal with life and its problems. For the food addict, it means learning a set of tools and skills to cope in a healthy manner. Recovery for this type of addict, of course, means changing his relationship towards food, from something akin to a drug to a source of nourishment. Addictive behavior modifies the emotional and pleasure state of the individual by artificially creating positive feelings and avoiding negative ones. This means that the addict’s own internal guidance mechanism — his “survival compass” — becomes progressively disconnected from his actual internal and external environment with its constantly shifting and changing stimuli and cues, and is replaced by the “false compass” of the addiction. The addict who resorts to sex to escape feelings of grief over a loss in his life is turning his emotional life upside down. Instead of experiencing the appropriate feelings of sadness and grief, the addict, by turning to the pleasure of sex to avoid those feelings, is distorting the body’s natural compass by giving it the wrong messages. After a while, the addict’s emotional and physical sense of reality shifts, becomes distorted. This phenomenon is very prevalent amongst drug addicts, who demonstrate an inability to evoke the appropriate and healthy emotion in the face of adversity. The same pattern is experienced with those affected by behavioral addictions.
Just as a drug addict experiences withdrawal symptoms when he stops taking the drug, so a behavior addict will experience his own form of withdrawal symptoms when he stops the addictive activity. Although these withdrawal symptoms may not be physical nor as painful as with substance addictions, their effect can be just as distressing. This is why it is hard to stop. The addictive activity fills a need, and when it’s stopped, the addict may feel bereft and abandoned – and want to return to the activity that has always provided relief. Any behavioral addict can testify, be it about sex, food, work or gambling, that trying to cut or even reduce their activity will lead to an amalgamation of painful emotions and psychological symptoms. They may experience irritability, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, and restlessness — leading to a great desire to return to their destructive behavior. Since they have used their addictive behavior for such a long time, they might be able to control it for a short period but soon find themselves back to their old habits. This is how they have adapted to cope with life. Some behavior addicts who have learned faulty ways to deal with life may for the first time be forced to examine their childhood issues to assess the root of their maladjusted behavior. This entails a long process where they have to come out of denial and face the truth about their lives, face the facts about their upbringing, and thus take responsibility for their own part in the unhealthy process.
For example a codependent who has become dependent on others for a sense of well-being, the one who compulsively helps others, has to acknowledge that though this was the manner taught to her in childhood and which she adopted to survive life, now is responsible for taking actions to live in more equal and healthy relationships. When stopping her codependent behaviors this person may feel lost, confused, and may go through a deep depression – in other words, experience withdrawal symptoms. But as she starts the journey into recovery and having come out of denial of her disease, she slowly picks up the knowledge and the tools on how to live life and enjoy relationships in a healthier manner. It must also be noted that unlike recovery from substance addiction, recovery from behavioral addictions is a slower and gentler process. It is also not so clear-cut as putting down the drink or the drug. In recovery from behavioral addiction, it is up to the person to identify the specific behaviors that are causing harm and are problematic – and to then start addressing them in the recovery process.
Effective approach towards recovery from behavioral addiction For recovery to start, all that is required of the behavior addict is to accept that there is a behavior that has become destructive and to want to recover and live a healthier way of life. The addict has to break through his denial in order to begin the recovery process. He or she has to acknowledge that their behavior has become destructive, and that they are now ready to take steps to recover from it. They have to be willing to learn a new way of living, one not dependent on the addictive activity for relief and escape from life’s problems. The addict has to admit that they can’t use will power to combat their addiction. For example, as long as the addicted gambler denies he has a problem with gambling or believes he can control or stop it whenever he wants, it is very unlikely he will look towards a solution outside himself. It is usually the case, as it is with substance addictions, that the behavior addict needs to reach a dark and painful bottom before he is ready confront his condition. The gambler may have to lose his house, his job, and his marriage before he is ready to face the mountain of destruction his gambling has created.
Giving up the addictive behavior for a short time may be relatively easy. As the saying goes in 12 Step fellowships: “It’s easy to quit – I’ve done it a hundred times!” The goal of recovery is to “stay stopped.” There is also the danger of substituting one destructive behavior with another. Staying stopped requires hard work and effort. It requires that the person commit to a program of recovery. Given that the disease of addiction is threefold — mental, spiritual, and physical — recovery programs address these three areas of a person’s life. These programs offer the tools and the support to maintain recovery on a daily basis.
Recovery from an addictive behavior means major changes in the way an addict thinks and lives. This is no easy task, but it is done little by little, a day at a time. Having engaged in a behavior that for years — though destructive — was the means by which the addict dealt with life, recover also takes time. 12 Step programs have proven to be the most effective approach to recovery from any form of addiction – be it to substances or behaviors. These programs have been customized for specific types of addictions. Different 12 Step programs cater to all aspects of recovery from various addictions and make it possible to recover a day at a time. Meetings of such Fellowships are open to anyone who wants to attend, and they are where the addict will be among likeminded people recovering from the same type of addiction. Members speak about their experience with the disease, with the compulsive behavior. They talk about what finally brought them into recovery in a 12 Step program. Listening to others, members learn about themselves, and also learn how to abstain from the addictive behavior a day at a time. Members hear others talk about what works and what doesn’t. The recovering addict gains the courage to go forward without reliance on what formerly was a compulsive activity. In these forums, the addict learns to share about his addiction and all the destruction it caused – and to do so without shame. Members find hope in knowing that they are not alone, and that there is a way to break free and find a better way of life.
-Information adapted from Hamrah.co with permission
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