Family Addiction Recovery: A Blog
This is part three in our series exploring the science behind our discomfort with change. Read part one, about the science of uncertainty, and part two, which explores how the fear of loss holds us back.
“Lizards don’t learn very much,” writes neuroscientist Marc Lewis in his book, “The Biology of Desire.” “Their repertoire of skills is innate.”
By contrast, mammals have brains that “are designed for learning — they are designed to change — in sync with their environments.” We humans have evolved to adapt to cold weather, to fashion new tools, to adventure to new lands.
So why is change so hard for us, when we are, apparently, so used to it?
Even as we are creatures who learn, we are also creatures of habit. The American philosopher and psychologist William James described it aptly in the 19th century:
“Any sequence of mental action which has been frequently repeated tends to perpetuate itself, so that we find ourselves automatically prompted to think, feel, or do what we have been before accustomed to think, feel, or do, under like circumstances.”
Understanding how we form habits and why it’s so difficult to break them can be the key to making a change just a little bit easier — because while habits are incredibly helpful to our daily lives, they also make us resist doing things in new ways.
It’s hard to break away from the status quoLearning a new environment, or a new way of being, is generally more taxing than sticking to the status quo. Michael Shermer, the founding publisher of Skepticmagazine and a columnist for Scientific American, told me that “it’s a heavier cognitive load to learn something new, to explore new environments” because it requires the brain to make new neural connections.
Learning engages an area of the brain Lewis has written is “the seat of appraisal, judgment, and consciousness” — the prefrontal cortex. Only after a great deal of practice does a new skill become a habit, at which point it demands less analysis and attention. Lewis explains that “it becomes something you automatically spin off from your striatum” — a relatively primitive part of the brain — “with very little prefrontal involvement.”
The characteristics of habit — that it is both hard won and hard to change — help us understand why, for example, it’s difficult to start driving a stick shift after years of driving cars with automatic transmission. And these same characteristics also help explain why we get stuck in more complex situations that we know are not good for us. “One of the best examples of that are abusive or codependent relationships,” Lewis said. “Why can’t we walk away from them? Because they’re deeply habitual. The synaptic patterns have been deeply carved, shall we say, by a lot of emotion and repetition.”
Individual temperaments and habits of thoughtHow we approach change can also vary based on a host of other factors that may be reinforced by habits of thinking, such as our past experiences, our tendency toward anxiety or depression, our general approach to novelty and risk-taking (what scares one person can thrill someone else), and our tendency toward what therapists call “rigid” thinking about how the world “should” work.
Kimberly Williams, a clinical psychologist who works with children on the autism spectrum, gifted children, and children with learning disabilities, told me some people appear to be wired to struggle with change. “Some people are just quite flexible and fluid in their thinking. A lot of the patients I get are rigid thinkers,” she says. “In order for them to change” — it could be as simple as transitioning from a video game to the bath — “they need a lot of cajoling and preparation and behavior management.”
On the other side of things are people who are drawn by temperament to novelty and the thrill of the new.
“I think there is a subset of intensely dopamine-dominant people for whom actually change is good because it’s tied into their dopamine reward system,” said Amy Banks, a psychiatrist and director of advanced training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at Wellesley College. These people might once have been our earliest explorers, helping humanity by discovering new lands while risking disease, starvation, and conflict in the process. In the modern context, such people experience excitement, rather than fear, upon landing in a foreign place, surrounded by strangers. Banks described the thrill of the new as offering a hit of euphoria for such adventure-seekers.
The power of context in our willingness to changeBanks, who wrote a book called “Wired to Connect,” told me that, depending on one’s temperament and past experiences, (among other factors), change can trigger a fight-or-flight response and throw our higher-order thinking processes for a loop — and for good reasons, evolutionarily speaking. “Our fear centers are attached to things like surprise and novelty, and in a primitive world, all of those things are associated with potential danger, literally,” she told me. “If it’s a new situation, we’re counting on that cognitive [process] to help us think through why we’re going to be OK. But if we’ve not been there before, we don’t have that.” Even the anxiety that comes with change can itself become a habit.
Of course, the context of change matters a great deal. Even if it’s ultimately for the good, it matters whether it’s a change we’ve chosen, or one that’s been foisted upon us. And it matters whether we’re taking a risk in an arena we consider ourselves to be strong in. Past experiences and how we process them can eventually turn into habits — perhaps because we avoid things that scare us, taking a catastrophic view when things don’t turn out as we hoped, or perhaps because we embrace the new, and come to think of ourselves as resilient. Someone who ended a bad relationship and landed on her feet, helped along by the support of family and friends, may hesitate less about cutting her losses the next time.
“People are actually very complex” in how they approach change, says psychologist Harriet Lerner. “I would resist change in a car, or learning something technological, but I am very adventuresome in my work as a psychologist and I’m very adventuresome and brave about opening up difficult conversations with the people who are close to me,” she said.
Another complexity of change is how it impacts our social lives, and whether we have the help of those we love when we’re initiating that divorce, move, adoption, or whatever it is. I’ll tackle that theme in my next post — the last in this series about the science of change.
Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York who has written for Slate, The New Republic, The Washington Post, New York magazine, Smithsonian Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Fast Company, Glamour and more. Previously she was a staff reporter and editor for The Washington Post for over a decade.
According to a recent study, training teens in a "growth mindset" can reduce their stress and improve their grades.
The hallways of high school often feel like battlegrounds—with potential social stressors lurking around every corner. When teens get ditched by their best friends or teased for their looks, the sharp pain of exclusion feels like it will last forever. But what if we could help teens take a different perspective?
In a recent study, psychologists at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Rochester set out to see if a small shift in mindset could reduce teenagers’ social stress. And they found that with a simple, half-hour training, they could help teens cope better, keep their bodies calmer, and even do better in school.
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Pay attention to what comes out of your mouth. The language you use affects how you experience your world, and how others experience you. Inevitably, things get "lost in translation."
If you're familiar with cognitive distortion or cognitive bias, these psychology terms teach us that there are subtle ways that our mind can convince us of something that isn't really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions, thus holding us back.
We all do this, both consciously and unconsciously, and how we do it provides pointers to our underlying beliefs about ourselves, our peers, partners and colleagues, and the immediate world around us.
This could spell trouble. Which of these do you do? Check the areas below and be courageous enough to ask a trusted peer for perspective. Is it a problem?
Top 10 Cognitive Distortions
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Ever notice how frequently the word “addict” is used? Just do a Google News search on the word and you’ll be shocked just how often it’s used in a headline. Articles are plastered with mentions of drug addicts, sex addicts, gambling addicts, food addicts, shopping addicts, work addicts and internet addicts. “These people” are painted as out-of-control and often menaces to society who need to be stopped, jailed, medicated or otherwise cut off.
But what if those diseased people weren’t sick at all? What if you suddenly realized you were one of them? Well, that’s what happened to me. In preparation for this podcast, I realized I’m an addict. I’m an addict who comes from other addicts, who has passed it onto my kids, too. I’m constantly looking for a way to not be with myself, a way to avoid the pain I have of not having meaningful bonds.
In this chat with physician and best-selling author, Gabor Maté, we talk about the shocking truth about what causes addiction and the things we can do to address the problem. What’s cool about Gabor is that he avoids quick-fix thinking when he tackles things like addiction, ADHD, sickness and the human spirit overall. Rather, he shines lights on the often uncomfortable truths that live at the root of these things.
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Addiction, whether to substances or behaviours, can wreak havoc on people's lives. But the addicted mind is complex, and we know from history that there's no easy fix. Now, one physician is attempting to heal the 'hungry ghost' of addiction by looking at addicts' childhood environment. Lynne Malcolm and Olivia Willis report.
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Change is hard. We take it for granted that this is true, but we don’t always fully understand why it’s the case. The Unstuck team asked reporter Libby Copeland to investigate the science behind why we resist change. This is part one in a four-part series in which she shares what she learned.
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So many of us struggle to change careers, to leave a bad relationship, to go back to school. In my social circle, I can think of just two friends who are notably good at change; the rest (myself included) tend to freeze up when we consider breaking with the past in a significant way. Neuroscientist Dean Burnett’s new book, “Idiot Brain,” addresses the ways our brains trip us up. I asked him why humans might be wired to resist making changes even when we say we want them.
“In an evolutionary sense, the brain doesn’t like uncertainty. Anything uncertain is potentially a threat,” Burnett says.
In talking to experts in areas including psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral economics, I found four distinct categories that tend to hold us back from making changes. I’ll cover each in a separate post, starting with the prospect of uncertainty: why we appear wired to pay a lot of attention to it — and sometimes to dread it.
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One of the most common mistakes is focusing on whether they are strong enough to change, rather than on specific methods of coping. “It’s like trying to ride a bike. You make mistakes and learn, and you don’t give up if you don’t immediately find your balance. If the bicycle is missing a wheel or is otherwise broken, then it requires fixing - simply willing it to work is not going to help you ride” - Alan Marlatt.
You can use this process as your OWN recovery…..as you are working toward recovering a healthy relationship with your loved one and a happier and healthier life for yourself.
You can use the Stages of Change to appreciate how complicated change is for your loved one and maybe it can give you a better understanding of where your loved one is in the change process.
Let’s go back to the analogy of learning riding a bike.
Did you ride in a perfectly straight, steady line the first time you rode a bicycle?....or were you wobbly at first?
Did you ride without EVER falling? Or did it take you a white to learn how much of your attention was really required to keep that bike straight and steady?
Were you able to somehow see each and every hole on the path and skillfully maneuver around them from the very first time you started riding? Or did it take you a while to learn which of the paths in your neighborhood had potholes?
So, ask yourself: Is it reasonable to expect your Loved One to quit using one day and become perfectly healthy and happy overnight?
The Stages of Change apply to you as well. Is it reasonable to expect that you will read “Beyond Addiction" and attend these meetings and find that you begin enjoying a perfectly balanced life, immediately? Is it reasonable to expect that you will begin having "perfect conversations" with your Loved One, immediately? Is it reasonable to expect to find the definitive response to your Loved One’s using behavior that really gets his attention and makes him realize that he needs to change?
Or is it more likely that you won't master these things the first time you try .... That you also will go through a period of learning, by trial and error, what works well and what doesn't work?
Understanding Stages of Change can help us manage our expectations which should lead to less volatile emotions. Somehow when we're prepared for the possibility of something happening, we're not quite so caught by surprise...we can keep a cooler head and be in a better position to act in a helpful manner.
Recognize that if YOU want to feel differently (and we are here for YOU, not your Loved One), if you want things to be different, YOU will have to change some things in your life.
BUT....with persistent attention and effort, things will get better. No one here will tell you that there is anything easy about recovery, but they will tell you that it's "worth it"!
Source: SMART Recovery
Although achieving the first steps on the path of recovery from addiction is a personally powerful experience, coming face to face with the damage to family left behind and the amends that need to be made can be overwhelming. When my head cleared up in the first months of recovery and I became truly aware of how much I had hurt my family, I did not know if the ruins in my wake could be cleaned up. I did not know if those bridges could ever be repaired.
I soon realized, however, that rebuilding family relationships was not just about cleaning up the mess. No matter how much I wanted to do so, I could not repair those bridges on my own timeline. Rather, I needed to provide them with evidence that I had changed by learning to be a positive and productive member of my family. I needed to develop patience in order to respect the individual forgiveness process of each family member in relation to my recovery. In truth, back in the day, patience wasn’t really my thing. I did not like it, and I still don’t. I want what I want and I want it now, but such an attitude proved to be quite detrimental both in early sobriety and in practically every other facet of life.
As I continued to make progress in early sobriety, the old demons of past behaviors and the lingering presence of my character defects led to new difficulties. By removing the drugs, my best friend and my number one coping mechanism, I was placed in a very difficult position. The old emotional triggers related to my family became inflamed as my new resentments popped out of the woodwork. By using the emotional tools and approaches discussed in this article, I was able to avoid the pitfall of generating more damage. Even more importantly, I found a way to slowly rebuild the family relationships that I so deeply valued. A key for me was to remember to take it slow.
1) Begin With The First Circle By Forgiving Yourself
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Timothy Harrington is passionate about helping family members of the addicted loved one awaken to their own power and purpose.