Can Good Come from the Opioid Crisis?

More than 150 Americans die each day from painkiller overdose. Thousands upon thousands more are at risk of death as they find that they must increase their daily dosage of painkillers to experience the same level of pain relief that they did just months before.

Some have found the euphoria that Vicodin, Oxycontin, and other painkillers provide offers a wonderful escape from the stress and anxiety of daily life without the hangover associated with binge drinking.

As a nation, we are becoming more aware of the devastation caused by the current opioid crisis. It has tragic effects in the lives of those who are addicted and in the lives of family, friends, and colleagues who are indirectly affected.

So it is with caution that I say that there may be a glimmer of hope that some good can come out of the opioid crisis. That maybe from its tragedy we as a nation will become more willing to see addiction to painkillers and addiction in general as a concern for all us.

Maybe by looking within at our own addictive tendencies that we will have the empathy necessary to desire the social and healthcare reforms that will encourage those who have been relegated to the darkness of addiction into the light of compassionate and effective treatment.

Back in early days of AA, alcoholics were considered to be morally defective and weak. “Why can’t he just stop?” was the question for those suffering from this apparent lack of willpower. Society looked away from them with disgust.

That still occurs today but to a lesser extent because we have learned that alcoholism is a disease and that willpower is not the problem. Like other diseases, it is an equal opportunity destroyer because it does not discriminate between the poor and the wealthy.

And now, the opioid crisis is forcing Americans to see that even the outwardly successful are being sucked into the vortex of addiction. It has made Americans realize that addiction can strike down one of our children as easily as the guy who lives next door in the beautiful house.

The changes I see as a result of the opioid crisis is the expansion of our collective consciousness that addiction is much more common than we once thought. That hardcore alcoholics and drug users are just on one extreme on a continuum. They represent a small percentage of the problem our nation faces with addiction—a problem that the opioid crisis has awakened us to.

Recent figures from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that nearly 42,000 Americans die each year due to opioid overdose. Excessive alcohol use claims 88,000 American lives and steals 2.5 million years of potential life lost each year. Add to that the 480,000 deaths each year from cigarettes. Those numbers speak to the tragic loss of American life due to substance addiction.

Yet, there are many more Americans whose addiction is not to substances but to behaviors. These behavioral addictions include addictions to food, gambling, and pornography. Add to those the more socially acceptable behavioral addictions like excessive working, excessive spending, excessive gaming, and excessive use of social media, and we can see even though behavioral addictions do not frequently result in death, they take a tragic toll on the quality of our lives every day.

In short, addiction is huge problem that the opioid crisis is bringing to our awareness.

For the past decade, I have devoted my life to reading the wisdom of experts in the fields of addiction, recovery, and psychology. I am convinced that at the root of all addiction is the avoidance of discomfort. Carl Jung, one of the early fathers of psychology, said that all mental illness is due to the avoidance of pain. And that avoidance makes us all a little crazy.

Our addictions—to substances or behaviors—are a way to avoid discomfort. And at the core of this discomfort is a gnawing absence at the center of our being. In his book In the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts, Dr. Gabor Mate’ talks about the “avoidance of the void” within us. That there is a hole that we are trying to fill with our drug or behavior of choice. As addicts we do what we can to avoid this black hole within.

In this light, addiction is our misguided attempt to avoid the void. And the reason that these behaviors and substances become addictive is that they seem to work—if only temporarily. “It’s hard to get enough of what almost works,” says addiction specialist Vincent Felitti, MD.

The tragedy of addiction is this: There is a void that all addicts are trying to fill with our addiction that cannot be filled by our addiction. I know this firsthand as a recovering alcoholic.

For me, that gaping hole at my core was a profound lack of connection to my true self. I have come to believe that we’re all spiritual beings having a human experience. At the core of who we are is not the brain but the soul or spirit.

As we are socially conditioned beginning at home and then in society, we become separated from who we are. This has its source in our early development as human beings. The need for food and water were contingent on us being alive, and we couldn’t survive as individuals without belonging to the tribe or otherwise we would become prey. For survival we continually compared ourselves to those in our tribe. Behaviors that prevented us from fitting in with the tribe either needed to be changed or we faced exclusion. In a real sense, either we conformed or died.

This need to conform ensures our survival, but the cost is a loss of connection to who we really are. This social conditioning allows us to unite with other human beings, but it creates separation from who we are at our cores. In this separation from our true selves, we also become separate from our relationship to the source of our being, whether we call that God, Spirit, Eternity, or Universe.

This is the void.

And it is my hope that we as a nation become compassionately aware of the connection between addiction and avoidance of the void. I hope that through the pain, suffering, and loss inflicted by the opioid crisis, that we reach out to those in our lives and encourage them with kindness to seek treatment. And that we ask those in positions of influence at our jobs and in our schools to offer programs to help those who are suffering from addiction.

There are solutions to this epidemic of addiction. Many have found it in the spirituality of a 12-Step program while others through programs like Rational Recovery.

However, if we condemn and relegate to the shadows those who most need our help, then this crisis of addiction will continue.

May we as a society offer to those who are suffering our love and acceptance not because they have changed but so that they can change.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach.
Contact me for help at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com.

Habit Versus Disease

There are many forms of addiction. Though drugs and alcohol are the Big Two, there are people who suffer as well from addictions that society considers more acceptable. They’re called shopaholics, workaholics, rageaholics. Others would say that the ultimate addiction is to our own negative thinking.

Whatever the addiction, we all know that they can wreak havoc in our own lives and those of our family and friends. The concepts behind Rational Recovery, a relative newcomer to the addiction scene, combined with those of Alcoholics Anonymous can be a powerful one-two punch for overcoming addiction.

As a recovering addict myself, I have been puzzled why it is that I became addicted while those around me appear free from them. In AA, I learned that my addiction is a disease. Rational Recovery, on the other hand, says that my addiction is a function of my brain’s wiring. It is, therefore, a habit, not a disease.

Although I often feel compelled to take a side in this debate, I believe that it is vitally important for me to remain open and willing to listen to both sides. This is because I have a passion and commitment to helping others overcome their addictions as I have been helped to overcome my own. I will use whatever ethical means to bring relief to the still suffering. If this means that I embrace an approach different from the one that saved me from my addiction, then I will suggest it to my clients or sponsees who I am committed to helping.

As I have learned from my Buddhist brothers and sisters, often the best solution to a problem is not choosing one side over another but choosing the door between them—the middle way.

I am convinced that if I hadn’t walked through the doors of AA a decade ago, I would be dead today. But, at the time, that was the only solution I knew. And I know through my work with addicts, that AA has saved their lives, too. Yet, there is merit in considering what Rational Recovery has to offer. After all, there may be great power and value in learning from both so that I will be better able to extend a hand and help lift addicts from the trenches of their addiction.

Just recently I read The Little Book of Big Change, by Dr. Amy Johnson. In it, Johnson explains the concepts behind Rational Recovery and provides her wisdom on the topic of habits in a very easy and entertaining way. Rather than trying to condense its 200 pages into this blog, I will present the concepts that I believe are the most helpful to addicts.

• Addictions are habits.

• You weren’t born with your habit. Your habit isn’t natural to you; it is artificial, innocently created by you as a function of the way you relate to and act on your thoughts.

• We engage in what becomes habit to help us avoid pain and make us feel better. Habits provide distractions from addressing issues within ourselves that we don’t like.

• Urges (cravings) are thoughts. Habits/addictions are created because you act on your urges.

• The difference between a person for whom a particular thought or behavior is a habit and the person for whom it is not is that the person with the habit entertains, takes seriously, and ultimately acts on some thoughts that others do not.

• Each time we obey an urge, we strengthen the brain (neural) circuitry that supports the habit.

• Neurologically, your urges live in your lower brain—the amygdala—also called the lizard brain because it is the oldest part of the brain.

• The first few times you experienced an urge and obeyed it, you strengthened the connections in your brain between your habit and positive feelings. Your lower brain saw that when it produced an urge, you acted on it and felt good, which told your brain, “This works”…So the urges continue. Each time you gave in to them, they became stronger.

• The amygdala’s chief concern is our survival. That’s why urges seem to have the power of life or death over us.

• When you mistakenly view urges as dangerous, personal, unbearable, or somehow permanent, you naturally give in to them.

• Urges are actually only a temporary experience made of nothing but conditioned thought.

• All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

• When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

• When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

• The higher brain, located in the pre-frontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lizard brain’s urges or not.

• We don’t make the lizard brain the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job. In that way, it is like an alarm clock. The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

• We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lizard brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

• Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

• When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

After reading about Rational Recovery, I have come to believe in its truth. And I find that its concepts are actually invaluable to the treatment of addiction because Rational Recovery explains the neurological roots of addiction whereas 12 Step programs emphasize its behavioral roots.

For those of us who are addicts, we know how difficult it is to overcome addiction. For me, I needed the strength and wisdom of my Higher Power to free myself. I also needed the support of my AA brothers and sisters to remain committed to that freedom that sobriety brings. So the spiritual solution and support that AA offers combined with the deeper understanding of addiction that Rational Recovery offers are powerful tools for recovery.

If you would like to work with me one-on-one on an addiction issue, we can meet in person or on Zoom. Reach out and contact me at RjLifeCoaching@gmail.com. Walk with me and I will provide you safe passage to a place of wonder and awe beyond your addiction.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

Live a New Year Free of Negative Habits

Habits can be good or bad. It’s the negative ones that cause us problems. These are self-sabotaging behaviors. And whether we are aware of them or not, all of us have a negative habit or two.

Negative habits are anything we continue to do despite the negative consequences they create. Maybe the habit is overspending, procrastination, complaining, gossiping, talking excessively, or social media.

Or maybe it’s a more dangerous habit like smoking, drug use, gambling, or excessive eating or drinking. Regardless of where you are on the continuum, negative habits typically get worse over time and cause us suffering.

Negative habits form when we do something that brings us temporary comfort from things that create discomfort for us. They provide short-term gain but cause us long-term pain. So how do any of us get over our negative habits?

First, we must be aware of them. Second, we must want to be rid of them. And third, we must learn how negative habits begin because that is the key to their end.

The first step takes some courage. This is the awareness step. Even non-life threatening habits like gossiping, complaining, and criticizing can damage or even end important relationships. People who we trust can really help us become aware of our negative habits. We just need to summon the courage to ask their help. We all have blindspots.

For those whose negative habits are more destructive and self-sabotaging, like drinking and drugging, awareness of the habit comes from the extreme suffering they cause. But in the early stages, a person may not be fully aware of the issue. Again, friends and family can help us see it.

So awareness brings us to the second step: the readiness step. It requires honesty. Do we really want to stop indulging this habit? I have the clients I work with answer a simple question: Does the habit come between you and the life you want for yourself? Ask yourself this question. If the answer is yes, then you are ready to move to step three: learning about habits.

All habits are powered by thought. And that’s the key. To end a negative habit, we must change our relationship with the thoughts that created the habit. To do this requires a little more understanding of how negative habits begin.

Habits are a way of alleviating discomfort. We are stressed after a hard day at work, and we have a drink to relax. The lower brain—the amygdala—notices that we feel better because of the drink. It creates a neural link to that pleasant feeling. Each time we take that drink after work, the neural connection strengthens. That neural connection creates the habit. This is true of other habits like procrastination in which we do something that brings us pleasure to avoid what brings us discomfort.

The amygdala is not only responsible for our survival, but it also regulates routine. It becomes like an alarm clock that rings in the form of an urge or craving. And this is where the habit becomes tragic. Not only do we feel the stress of our daily lives, but now we feel the stress of the craving. What once brought us comfort now compounds our discomfort. It’s like a pet dog that now bites us.

Because the amygdala is responsible for our survival, satisfying the craving feels like a matter of life or death. It tells us that we have to have that drink or that smoke or that Vicodin or that pie. The craving seems bigger than us. And the only way to get rid of the tension is to give in to it. That’s the message the amygdala sends us.

This message, however, is a thought. And thoughts cannot harm us or force us to do anything. As we all know, the thousands of thoughts we have in a day are like vapors that come and go. It’s the ones we pay attention to that we give power to.

So it all comes down to changing your relationship with the thoughts that are giving you trouble—the ones that are creating your urges. The truth is that these thoughts are like a playground bully, separate from who you really are. The key word here is SEPARATE. You are not your thoughts. You generate your thoughts, but they are not you just as I am not the words I am now writing.

Realizing this is profound. It changes your entire relationship to your thoughts. You are the subject and the thoughts creating the urge are the object. Now these thoughts become like characters on a stage and you are watching them from a seat separate from them.

When you are aware of this relationship, you can benefit greatly, as my clients have, from the insights Dr. Amy Johnson provides in The Little Book of Big Change.
These are:

• All thoughts are temporary—even urges—and they settle just like the snow settles in a snow globe if we don’t continue to shake it up.

• When we take urges seriously and very personally, we try to reason with them, debate them, and problem-solve them. We are shaking the snow globe. Our mental and emotional entanglement with these thoughts only encourages them.

• When we don’t indulge the urge, the neural connections to those urges weaken and fade on their own from disuse. This defies our programming from childhood because we have learned that problems require action—not inaction. So inaction seems very counter-intuitive, but it is what’s needed.

• The higher brain, located in the pre-frontal cortex, is the part of the brain that decides whether we are going to act on our lower brain’s urges or not.

• We don’t make the lower brain (the amygdala) the villain. It is like a machine that is programmed to do its job. In that way, it is like an alarm clock. The amygdala sounds the alarm because we continually reset it by indulging its urgings.

• We don’t have to say yes to urges from the lower brain. Our higher brains provide the free will to exercise free won’t.

• Knowing that there is no thought or urge in the world that can make you do anything is a game changer.

• When your new normal is urge-free, your habit will have no reason to exist.

Some thoughts are more difficult to defuse from than others. In my life coaching practice, I use Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) with clients because it provides powerful tools for overcoming negative habits. You can apply these ACT techniques on your own with an ACT workbook to guide you. One I would recommend is The Wisdom to Know the Difference. If your habit is particularly dangerous, then a support group like Alcoholic Anonymous is highly recommended.

Another alternative is seeking out my help. We could work one-on-one either in person or on Skype on a negative habit that is keeping you from living a richer, fuller, more meaningful life. Go to my website at rjhandley.com. To find out more about me or to read some of my articles published in The Fix, the AA Grapevine, or Addiction Unscripted, just Google my name.

Here’s to living free of negative habits in the New Year!!

RJ Handley
Life Coach

Release yourself from anxiety

Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.” So it is true with me and probably with you as well. When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.

Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong. It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms. We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.

If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times. We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds. Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat, and before we can stop it we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.

If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking. And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel. Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.

In my spiritual life coaching practice, I work with clients with anxiety and depression issues. One of my clients, who suffered from anxiety for decades, found almost immediate relief from this emotional hijacking in my use of Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT).

In their book based on ACT, Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong, Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene apply the core practices of ACT to anxiety. They say, “The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain.”

Pain is an inevitable part of life. Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it. And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.

This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment. We were not only predator but also prey. What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad. So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.

ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety. One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it. When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance. Same with our anxious thoughts. When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.

How do we do that? By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind. Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders. Its domain is the past and the future. The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment. If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.

Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:

1. Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.

2. Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought. Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.

3. Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now. Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.

The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind. Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.

When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thought, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods. With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.

May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.

I would love to hear your comments or to have you share your anxiety success stories.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

My Best,
RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach

Relationships and Early Sobriety

Relationships with other people are one of life’s greatest challenges, especially for those of us new to recovery.

 

This is the reason why we learn in AA to avoid romantic relationships during the first year of our recovery.  Although establishing them may be one of our greatest achievements in recovery, the challenge of an intimate relationship is too great for us in our fragile first year.

 

Many of us have returned to the dumpster of addiction because we ventured into romance before we were ready. Recovery is as much about getting healthy as it is about getting real.  By getting real I mean facing the sources of our pain and misery.  For years—even decades—we have shielded ourselves from pain through drugs and alcohol.  The beauty of pain is that it provides the catalyst for change.

 

When that pain reaches a critical threshold, non-addicts summon the courage to finally change their ways.  For the addict, however, the pain that would normally provide transformation is numbed out by alcohol and drugs.  That is why—if we are being truly honest with ourselves—we addicts are all emotionally immature.

 

Bill Wilson was acutely aware of this.  In “Emotional Sobriety,” published in a 1958 edition AA Grapevine, Bill W. confides in us about his demands for approval, prestige, and security from others.  “Since AA began, I’ve taken immense wallops in all these areas because of my failure to grow up, emotionally and spiritually.”   It took Bill W. nearly 20 years after his last drink to face the pain and suffering these demands caused himself and others.

 

By denying our pain, we have denied our own growth.  So how can we take on the ultimate life challenge—intimate relationship—when we lack emotional maturity, the very thing that makes relationships work?   And how can we be truly intimate with another when we have never been emotionally intimate with ourselves?

 

The answer is the AA meeting.  For many of us, we walk through the doors of AA for the first time very alone in the world.  If our friends and loved ones haven’t washed their hands of us, then we have done the job for them through isolating, one of the addict’s favorite defenses against pain—and growth.  One of the greatest gifts of AA comes from meetings. They are the classrooms for emotional maturity.

 

In them, we discover the power of connection.  We come to the truth that we can’t stay sober on our own.  But this discovery is the easy part.  Then we must do the heavy lifting.  And that is clearing away all the stones we have put in the wall between us and other people—to finally be vulnerable.  Without vulnerability, people cannot connect with us. Without connection, we cannot experience deep relationship, which is ultimately the source of all our cravings.

 

Yes, vulnerability involves heavy lifting. But we get the help we need in meetings when AA veterans show us through their sharing what vulnerability looks like.  And it is a thing of absolute beauty.

 

This modeling of vulnerability gives us the confidence to do the same in meetings.  And if we can be vulnerable in meetings, we can be vulnerable in our relationships outside meetings.  But before we venture into the advanced coursework of intimate relationship, we must get the practice in connection and vulnerability we need with the friends we meet in the classrooms of AA.

 

Incentive powers personal growth.  One of the greatest incentives is relationships.  And for good reason.  They are the fastest path to personal growth.  Other people are mirrors that show us how we are playing in the world.  Those mirrors reveal to us the blind spots that have created so much division within ourselves and between ourselves and others.  These blind spots are the reason we have continually stumbled on our path to emotional maturity.  Bill W. learned this lesson in his own life.

 

So we need to heed the advice of our AA elders to chop wood and carry water during our first year of recovery.  Through the 12 Steps and the friendships we form in AA, we develop the emotional tools we need to finally become successful in the ultimate challenge of our lives.

 

And the sublime beauty of intimate relationship is the ultimate payoff for all the blood, sweat, and tears it took to embrace it.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Life Coach

My Fugitive Ways

During a recent conversation with my sister, she asked me why I devote so much time to studying psychology.  “Don’t you get tired of staring at your own asshole?’ At first I was taken aback by the blunt crudeness of my sister.  Then I laughed and told her this:

 

For so much of my life I have run away from my own issues.  It started in high school when I used alcohol to separate myself from myself.  In that space, I was able to distance myself from that hurt, lonely boy that I disliked to become the carefree, outgoing person I wanted to be.  Drinking was like climbing into a superhero outfit.   The introverted, troubled Peter Parker became the valiant Spider-man.  If only temporarily.

 

For the next 30 years, I would use alcohol to live in a fantasy world where my problems couldn’t touch me.  The more my buried pain cried out to be heard, the more I ran away from it.  I became a fugitive from my pain.

 

Finally, with my business in the dumps, with my wife threatening to leave me, and with bankruptcy looming, I stopped running and I walked through the doors of AA. There I learned that I was only as sick as my secrets.  And I had many.

 

The Fourth Step was a miracle for me.  It forced me to face a life I had put together with bullshit and scotch tape.  Rather than running away, I ran towards my problems. I felt the power that honesty and fearlessness had in freeing me from my pain and from my lies.  Now, years later, I live a truth:  The degree of my liberation is dependent on the depth of my investigation.

 

I ended my reply to my sister’s question by saying, “So, no. When I am aware of what is coming out of me, I am aware of what’s inside of me.”

 

My Higher Power has given me the fearlessness to continue looking within.   As Carl Jung says, “Who looks outside, dreams.  Who looks inside, awakens.”  When we run away from our Selves and try to avoid pain through our addictions, we are asleep to who we are.  When we embrace the Divine and open our Selves to the practical tools psychology has to offer, we can finally awaken from the false realities we have been living.

And to be wide awake in reality is to be wide awake in splendor.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kind Regards,

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach

Drug-free Solutions to Chronic Pain

One truth I have learned about chronic physical pain is the more you fight it the worse it gets. Another is that traditional methods for relieving pain often ignore a crucial player:  the mind.

After experiencing only partial pain relief from my spinal fusion 10 months ago, I became convinced that there was another issue that contributing to my chronic pain.  This led me to investigate solutions other than additional surgery or the use of medications to treat this pain.

In my previous blog titled “Get Out of Your Chronic Pain and Into Your Life,” I discussed the benefits of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) in contending with pain.  In this blog, I am going to introduce you to physician Dr. John Sarno whose treatment of chronic pain was featured in a 20/20 segment.

 

As a brief recap of last week’s blog, it is our attempts to combat or avoid pain that keeps us in the trenches with our pain.  Like for many of you, pain killers only reduced my pain; they never eliminated it.  I also tried physical therapy, acupuncture, and chiropractic.  Again, the relief was only partial and temporary.   What was constant was my preoccupation with that pain.  I was thinking about it continually throughout the day.  Sadly, this preoccupation with pain made my world smaller and smaller.  I avoided physical activities that I used to enjoy and withdrew from friends and family because of the pain.

 

ACT recognizes that total elimination of pain my not be possible for some of us.  So we have a choice:  we can live on the sidelines of our life with pain, or we can commit to re-engaging our lives despite the pain.  Amazingly, though, it is this re-engagement with life that allows us to experience freedom from our pain.  To test the validity of this, think of what happens to your pain when you are laughing with friends or fully engaging in a hobby.  For me, the pain disappears because I am not focusing my attention on it.

 

Like ACT, re-engagement in your life is at the core of Dr. John Sarno’s work.  In his New York Times bestselling book, Healing Back Pain, Sarno says that chronic pain is the result of suppressed emotions.  His term for this pain, regardless of whether it manifests in the back, neck, or other parts of the body, is Tension Myositis Syndrome (TMS).  The source of this pain?  Suppression of emotions.  For those of you who experience migraines, it is clear that the pain is not something structurally wrong with your brain but that it is brought on by stress and the negative emotions it creates.  So too it is with chronic back and neck pain, according to Sarno.

 

“TMS is a sideshow designed to distract you from what is going on emotionally,” Sarno says.   Because our minds do not want to deal with painful emotions, that pain is manifested in our bodies, just like stress is manifested as intense headaches for migraine sufferers.

 

Interestingly, if you randomly picked 40 adults from the streets and gave each an MRI, you would find that many of them have structural issues with their backs—like ruptured or bulging disk. Yet, some of those people are not experiencing back pain.  In fact, orthopedic surgeons who see these supposed structural “problems” cannot determine just from the MRI whether that person is in pain.  Interestingly, too, when an MRI for a non-spine related issue reveals one of these back “problems,” the patient often experiences the sudden sensation of back pain.

 

So how can TMS cause pain?  The brain is the most complex creation in the known universe.  One of its functions is regulating oxygen levels in the body.  It provides more oxygen to the muscles when an external threat activates the fight or flight response.  Just as the brain can oxygenate the body more, it can also deprive parts of the body of oxygen.  “The direct reason for pain is mild oxygen deprivation,” Sarno says in drawing the connection between TMS and chronic pain.

 

So how do you treat TMS and the chronic physical pain it produces?   In Healing Back Pain, Sarno suggests a series of exercises that will get you in touch with the unpleasant emotions that cause TMS.  Often these emotions are in the form of anger or rage that the mind has suppressed, keeping us unaware of their presence.  Frequently, these suppressed emotions are rooted in childhood trauma, Sarno states.

 

If working through these exercises on your own doesn’t eliminate your chronic pain, Sarno recommends seeking out a therapist to guide you through them in order to  surface and release these pain-producing emotions.

 

Overall, the connection between ACT and Sarno’s work is freeing ourselves of the thoughts and emotions that create our pain and suffering. For those of you who are experiencing chronic pain, consider asking yourself this question: “Am I going to live my thoughts and emotions and the pain those create or am I going to live my life and the joy that can bring?”

 

Together, ACT and Sarno’s work can be a very effective way of treating chronic pain.   So if you are experiencing chronic pain despite surgery, pain medications, and other treatments, consider getting to know ACT and Sarno’s approach.  The 20/20 segment that features Sarno is available on YouTube.  An excellent resource for the ACT approach is the workbook Living Beyond Your Pain by Joanne Dahl and Tobias Lundren.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.

Kindly,

RJ Handley, Life Coach

Three Steps to Releasing from Anxiety

Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”  So it is true with me and probably with you as well.  When we follow our anxiety-ridden thoughts to their destination, inevitably we arrive at dark and fearsome places.

Anxiety is always about what MIGHT go wrong.  It hijacks our thought processes and takes us into fretful realms.  We may rise up in revolt, but the flight path seems predetermined and out of our control.

If this process is all too familiar, it’s because we have boarded that plane many times.  We think of an upcoming event or a task, and we play out the scenarios in our minds.  Then, as it often does, that inner terrorist rises from his seat and, before we can stop it,  we are captive passengers on Air Anxiety.

If you’re like me, you have worked hard to avoid anxiety’s emotional hijacking.  And we have tried a variety of methods to do so: affirmations, meditation, positive thinking, changing the thought channel.  Some of us have felt temporary relief from anxiety through the use of alcohol, prescribed and unprescribed drugs, gaming, Internet, and Facebook. Though we resist the tendency, we end up—time and again—passengers on an anxious journey.

Finally, after decades of struggling with anxiety, I have found a workable solution to this emotional hijacking in Acceptance and Commitment Theory (ACT).  And more specifically, in a very accessible book called Things Might Go Terribly, Horribly Wrong that applies the core tenets of ACT to anxiety.

“The principle reasons we get anxious is to protect ourselves from anticipated pain,” according to Kelly G. Wilson and Troy Dufrene, authors of the book.

I treated a client who nearly lost his teaching job because kept relapsing into alcohol and drug use to escape all his anxious thoughts.  It was only after introducing him to ACT’s techniques that he was able to release himself from anxiety.

Pain is an inevitable part of life.  Because we have an aversion to pain, we all become anxious at the thought of it.  And ACT acknowledges that all of us—even Zen masters—have anxious thoughts during a typical day.

This is because our brains developed in a very threatening environment.  We were not only predator but also prey.  What was bad was bad AND what could be bad was also bad.  So actual danger and the possibility of danger became one and the same thought.

ACT, however, provides a powerful psychological tool to cope with anxiety.   One of the keys to releasing from anxiety, Wilson and Dufrene say, is not engaging it.  When we spot a bear in the distance, it’s best to back away and create distance.  Same with our anxious thoughts.  When we feel ourselves being pulled into the thought, we need to disengage.

How do we do that?  By first understanding that all thinking is divided into two categories: the ruminating mind and the experiencing mind.  Rumination is what happens when the mind wanders.  Its domain is the past and the future.  The experiencing mind is about connection to the present moment.   If this sounds like mindfulness, then you are right.

Once we have this awareness, we can apply the concepts Wilson and Troy present that are based on ACT principles. They recommend that when a thought begins to generate anxiety, we apply this three-step process to release from its grip:

  1. Identify the thought. When we name the anxious thought, we alert ourselves to it and avoid stepping into its snare.

 

  1. Step back from it. The more we fight the thought, the more we get swept away in it. This includes trying to change the anxious thought to a positive thought.  Brain research has proved that the thought will recoil with even more power if we try to push it away from our consciousness. Instead, we release (defuse) from the thought rather than fuse with it.

 

  1. Make contact with the present moment. Change your attention from the future or past to the here and now.  Instead of sitting on the coach allowing your mind to toggle back and forth between the past and future, find something that you value to engage your mind in the present. This keeps you from endlessly reprocessing the past or worrying about the future. “Anxiety is always out of place in the present moment,” according to Wilson and Dufrene.

The key, then, to freedom from anxiety is to remain in the experiencing mind.  Anxiety cannot co-exist with the present moment because anxiety is always what could happen, not what is happening.

When we apply these three simple steps at the onset of an anxious thinking, we can find a freedom from anxiety that is simply more effective than other methods.  With practice, we can come to know a freedom from anxiety that is as refreshing as a good night’s sleep.

“If you can learn to remain connected to what’s going on in your life right now, accepting both the sweet and the sad, holding lightly the stories about what’s possible while turning your actions toward things that matter to you” then you have succeeded, as Wilson and Dufrene say, in avoiding the snare of anxiety.

May you all experience the joy of an anxiety-free life.

My Story

 

It was nearly 10 years ago that a Big Book quote came true for me: “Someday the [alcoholic] will be unable to imagine life with alcohol or without it.  Then he will know loneliness such as few do” (BB 152).

It may have seemed to others that my life was like a Lexus, but inside I was really a rusted out AMC Pacer.  I was on the brink of bankruptcy after my business partner lost all our working capital in the stock market. My reaction was to descend deeper into abyss of my drinking.

I was literally a fall down drunk. Despite tearing my rotator cuff and then later breaking seven ribs in two drunken falls, I was too prideful to seek out AA for the help I desperately needed.  Although I knew I was an alcoholic, I could not tolerate the stigma of being labeled one.

With my wife set on leaving me, my friends having abandoned me, and my credit card debt reaching $60,000, I lived a life of loneliness and despair that few non-alcoholics experience.  In agony, I finally reached out to my alcoholic sister who encouraged me to attend an AA meeting.  It is through AA and the grace of God that I got sober and remain so after 10 years.

So this blog is really my way of giving back to a program that literally saved my life.  Like many of you, the 12 Steps were my portal into a spiritual awakening.   Sponsorship keeps me involved in the program, but I continue to hunger for more inspired texts like the Big Book to nourish my spiritual growth.   I have read many, and a year and a half ago I went back to school to become a Spiritual Life Coach.

Through this blog, I hope that I can share some of the spiritual truths that have brought a wonderful sense of joy and contentedness to my life.

If you would like to work one-on-one on with me concerning an issue that is robbing you of your happiness such as depression, anxiety, relationships, negative thoughts, or esteem, contact me.  I’m at rjhandley.com.  Google my name if you’d like to find out more about me.

Kindly,

RJ Handley, Spiritual Life Coach