This is the fourth blog in the Mind over Matter series. Initially we discussed the theory of mind and brain, noting that the “mind” is a real entity but undefinable, along with the different functions of the mind and the brain. In Mind over Matter II we discussed how the brain creates anger, anxiety, and depression to provide safety for the person. In the last sessions, Mind over Matter III, we discussed means of practically using the mind to manage emotions. Now, in this discussion we want to briefly note how addictions are the result of the mind/brain interaction, and make some theoretical suggestions for people plague by addictions and people who try to help these folks.
A few words about addictions
- Addictions have a tremendous cost: loss of health and life, loss of relationships, loss of jobs, loss of money, and loss of productivity. Ultimately, all these losses cause immense damage not only to the individual but to our culture and the world.
- There are great disputes in psychology about the definition of addictions, the course of the addictive process, and the treatment of addictions.
- We are not addiction specialists, much less addictionologists (specialists in addictions). We do encounter many people with the full range of addictions in our office, and deal daily with the ramifications that addictions have on life.
The mind and the brain in review
- The mind, while undefined, uses the “machinery” of the brain to do various activities, from walking to talking and many other activities.
- The brain knows only safety (or the lack thereof) and pleasure (or the lack thereof)
- The mind knows everything else.
- Much of what the mind “knows” and what the brain does remains in what we must call the “unconscious.”
- A central feature of human existence is another undefined word: feelings. We discussed this largely in Mind over Matter III
Kinds of addictions
There has been great debate about what constitutes an “addiction” because the word was originally used largely with the abuse of alcohol and to some degree other chemicals, like opiates. Over the recent years in particular the term addiction has been given a wider view including what are generally called behavioral addictions. While the American Psychiatric Association has yet to accept behavioral addictions as a formal diagnosis, the International Diagnostic community has.
Roughly, we now have:
- Chemical addictions: alcohol, opiates, stimulants, and hallucinogens
- Behavioral addictions: something that one does “to a fault”, which ultimately adversely affects his or her life.
Behavioral addictions have become of much greater interest in the psychological community and include:
- Property acquisition (hoarding)
- Eating (too much, too little, too restricted and limited)
- Sexual activities and expression
- Video gaming and other electronic engagements, even texting.
- Many others, all of which might be seen as some activity “to a fault,” and might even include playing, exercising, talking, refusing to talk, sleeping, or even joking
Definition of an addiction
Again, there is much dispute over the definition of an addiction, and hence whether something should even be considered to be an addiction. Just because someone drinks quite a bit does not make him/her necessarily addicted to alcohol. On the other hand, if someone doesn’t drink at all but craves alcohol to such an extent that s/he thinks about it 24/7, that might be a thought or cognitive addiction
The traditional definition of an addiction includes the following:
- Excessive use of some chemical or behavior
- Increased use of the chemical or behavior over time to give the same amount of pleasure or satisfaction
- Many failed attempts to reduce the excessive use
- Encroachment on other elements of life because of the use: relationships, work, money. Certainly on self-esteem.
- Attempts to hide the addictive behavior
The course of an addiction is something like this:
- Some behavior is found to be pleasurable or provides safety
- This behavior becomes a habit. In other words, the person begins to do this pleasurable or safety-enhancing thing without thinking about it
- This behavior subtly encroaches on other elements of life and becomes the “go to” thing when life seems unhappy or unsafe
- Attempts to hide the addictive behavior
Mind over brain in overcoming addictions
We remind our readers that we are not addictionologists, who know a whole lot more than we do on this subject. Our approach to addictions is almost wholly psychological, meaning that we look first to understand the behavior that has become addictive more than “diagnosing” it as addictive. This places us in a fairly different position than most people who work with addicts, like alcoholics, to change their lies. We deeply respect the hard-working and committed individuals who do this addiction recovery work. We don’t do it.
Our focus being on causes and understanding leads us to see an addiction as a “brain over mind” matter, and we seek to help people restore the “mind over brain” operation in life. Recall that the brain (not the mind) knows only safety and pleasure, and hence is constantly looking out for our welfare by providing safety and seeking things that are pleasurable. Unfortunately, the brain “doesn’t know when to stop.” We might say something like, the brain sort of thinks “there can’t be too much of a good thing.” So when, for instance, a young man I saw not long ago spent 70 hours a week playing video games, his brain was simply calling him to do something that had been fun…even though his fun was less and less. So much so, in fact, that he said he “hated” playing games but “somehow” continued to do so. Why? Because his brain had been wired to previously find pleasure in gaming. This is the approach we take to all addictions and it can be seen as a progression from simple pleasure to habit to addiction without the mind knowing what the brain is doing. The brain is, as we said, thinking that there can’t be too much of a good thing. Remember that the brain doesn’t know time, money, relationships, work or anything else: it just knows safety and pleasure. In an addiction the brain is ruling the roost of the person, not the mind.
To get the mind back in control, you have to keep in mind what I have repeated in this blog series, that your brain is a wonderful machine that you can’t live without. Even so, your brain is not your mind, it is a part of you but it is not the whole of you. Your brain is the machine that keeps the whole of you going. I often say that I can’t live without my computer and books. But my computer and books are not me; they are a reflection of me. You can teach your brain what to reflect of you. Getting the mind back in the driver’s seat is simple but extremely hard, and the only way to do it is to realize that you will be fighting your brain that will be screaming at you. You will notice that you don’t want to continue in this addictive behavior but you feel compelled to do so. The wanting to stop is the mind; the compulsion to continue is the brain. We recommend you read our blog on Wanting and Liking for more on this. So, first, recognize that your brain is in control. Don’t be mad at your brain; rather, simply appreciate that your brain is trying to protect you and find pleasure for you because that is what it does. That is all it does.
Now, take it a step further. Let your mind see the benefits of changing your addictive behavior. Let your mind see all the dangers and losses of the addiction. Don’t feel guilty or ashamed; that will do no good whatsoever. Just see what you would like to do and what you have lost for not having done it. Doing this, you will notice that you will feel sad. Why are your sad? Because you have lost something that you have loved. Now you’re on the right track. You are on the love track in your mind and life rather than the pleasure/safety track of your brain. You have to be honest about this sadness with addictions. You can’t make justifications or promises. Justifications will keep you mad and defensive. Promises will just fall though and bring you shame. You have to do the sad.
The third step beyond recognizing that your brain is in control and seeing all the things you love is to notice that every time you fall into addictive behavior, you feel sad. You feel sad because you have lost something. Now you are on the road to getting your mind in control of your brain.
Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2017). The positive power of sadness. Praeger Press.
Johnson, R. and Brock, D. (2018). “Mind Over Matter I, II, and III” blogs