The research is clear: childhood adversity and emotional deprivation can produce significant alterations in the brain's emotional processing system which often extend into adulthood. In my work with people with mental health and addiction issues, these histories are common and the thing that unites them is a belief that they are fundamentally alone. They learn to contain and manage their emotional worlds privately since everything and everyone is a potential threat to them. This self-protective stance is not intentional; it seems to be built right into the brain's hard-wiring from the earliest memories. They learned early on that showing emotional needs were either ignored or displays led to criticisms or put-downs. These things had to be stifled, hidden away and avoided at all costs. These children, turned into adults, learn the essential survival skill of becoming chameleons - blending in by looking and sounding just like everybody else.
This adaptation to survive in a threatening world by suppressing how they actually feel often works to varying degrees and during particular periods in their lives. But many of these same people develop problems with anxiety and depression and often turn to various preoccupations including substances to self-manage. While this is often called addiction (a term nobody can seem to agree on), I view substance reliance as repetitive automatic responses to emotional triggers.
A solution for those who struggle with substance overuse involves slowing down mentally (which can involve mindfulness, spending time without outside distractions) to a point where they begin to recognize the physical cues linked with particular emotional reactions (often termed introception), honestly facing these emotions (naming what they feel, allowing themselves to feel their reactions) and then doing something about them (writing them down, telling someone, engaging in some activity). These activities can literally rewire the brain over the long-run!
These skills can be difficult to practice since the people who avoid their emotional reactions often believe that this is a silly waste of time or they fear being flooded and overwhelmed. This work (and it is work) often means taking a risk to trust another person and the possibility of being hurt or disappointed. But, in terms of the opportunity to feel the full range of emotions, including things like love, joy, or tenderness, the payoff is often life altering. This process has the power to break the chain of addictive preoccupations. It is a process which has nothing to do with the misguided notion of addiction as a disease, either. People get into difficulties with substances through very human processes and they get out the same way.
Being full awake emotionally is the opposite of addiction.
John J. Whelan
John J. Whelan, Ph.D., is the author of Going Crazy in the Green Machine, available now on FriesenPress.