How Stress Leads to Relapse

I remember the scenes from old TV shows and movies where the husband comes home from work and makes a beeline for the booze in one of those elegant crystal glass decanters.  Oh, that once wonderful feeling of the first drink as it melts away the stress of the day.

 

This became my routine, too, as I would rush home from work and head directly for the bottle of Smirnoff vodka that I kept chilled in the freezer.

 

As I look back to those days when alcohol worked its magic, I can see how it was my go-to stress reliever.  I didn’t look within for the source of my stress.  That would have violated my personal creed: Only the unexamined life is worth living.  All I knew was alcohol rounded the edges of my stress and allowed me to stuff it away.

 

What I failed to understand was this avoidance pattern only intensified my stress and anxiety. What I resisted persisted.  So the cycle would begin again after the next day of work.  On and on.  Finally, I couldn’t drink enough to silence the strident voices of my stress.

 

Sober now for more than a decade, I have revamped my personal creed to Sophocles’ original: Only the examined life is worth living.  In those 10 years, I have immersed myself in the Big Book as well as other psychological and spiritual literature. By looking within rather than away, I have finally gotten to know who I am.

 

But it’s still one day at a time. Stressors are still a part of the sober life. And I am very aware that if I don’t surface the issues in my life that cause stress, that I am very likely to relapse.

 

One of the books that has been a tremendous help to me is The Mayo Clinic Guide to Stress-free Living, by Dr. Amit Sood.   It’s turned up the stage lighting on what creates stress in my life and how to cope with it.  When we are able to name the source of our stress, we can tame it.  This knowledge may save you from a relapse as well.

 

According to Sood, stress has two internal and three external components.  The internal ones are fighting life and fighting change.

 

Although I recited the Serenity Prayer out loud in hundreds of AA meetings, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I recognized its stress-reducing power.  To “accept the things I cannot change” is an approach to life that has great efficacy in disarming one of the internal stressors: fighting life.  When I can accept life as it is rather than how I think it should be, I immediately reduce my stress level.  I no longer judge my daily experiences as good or bad.  They are all lessons that my Higher Power engages me in for my ultimate good.

The second internal stressor is fighting change. There is a powerful Frederica Matthews-Green quote that says, “Everyone wants to be transformed but nobody wants to change.”  That was me until a few years ago.  Although I had made a drastic change in my life by giving up alcohol, I was unaware of the beliefs I held onto that caused me stress and suffering. During my morning prayer and meditation, I now often ask my Higher Power for “the courage to change the things I can.”  I’ve also discovered that relationships provide a mirror for me to see what I need to change.

 

The three external stressors are the unpredictability of others, a lack of control, and a lack of power.

 

In my drinking days (and still to a much lesser extent), I created movies in my head in which I would play out different scenarios for situations involving unpredictable people.  Rarely did these movies sync with the actual situation.  Instead, they created expectations and then stress when things didn’t work out as I envisioned.  I now “accept the things I cannot change,” knowing that people will be endlessly unpredictable. And isn’t that what makes them fascinating?

 

The second external stressor is lack of control.  That was a huge one for me.  I would stress myself out by constantly trying to control the outside world so that I could be more comfortable in it.  The desire is understandable.  Humans have an aversion to pain.  Yet, control is an illusion.  In honesty, I can’t even control my own thoughts let alone another person.  Giving up my attempts to control others has significantly reduced my stress levels.

 

Power is the last of the external stressors and is the most elusive of the five. I don’t know of anyone who has tasted power who doesn’t crave more of it.  As much as we chase it, we can’t ever seem to hold on to it for long. When we try to seize it, we become like terrorists to others.  People then don’t follow us out of love but out of fear. Honor the moments of your life that you have power.  It is a gift from your Higher Power to be used lovingly.

 

What is common to relieving each of the five stressors is acceptance.  It is a potent antidote to stress.  And it’s central to the Serenity Prayer.  When practicing acceptance, I savor each of its  three flavors: acceptance of others, self-acceptance, and acceptance of the situation.  Life is the highest spiritual path, and I can avoid so many of the stressors by “accepting the things I cannot change.”

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

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.

If you’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach

Understanding Addiction as a Habit, Not a 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 benign.  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 prefrontal 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.

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’d like to be free of  your addiction, please contact me at ValuesBasedRecovery@gmail.com.  I work with people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction as well as behavioral addictions such as food, porn, and gambling.  I work with clients in person or on the Zoom live video platform.

RJ Handley, Addiction Recovery Coach