Compassion Matters

How to save a life

Are You an Addict?

How addictive behaviors cut us off from pain and joy

The tabloids and reality TV shows documenting the erratic, out-of-control behaviors associated with drinking and drugging may be giving us a skewed image of what constitutes addiction. You don't have to off-road into a Beverly Hills boutique or engage in raging encounters to qualify as being an addict. Understanding whether you may have an addiction involves asking yourself certain questions. Do you look forward to that glass of wine every evening? Does having that cigarette calm you down when you are stressed? Does that rich dessert leave you feeling full and soothed? Do sexual fantasies offer you an escape from the unsatisfying reality of your life? If your answer is "yes," you may be addicted.

Addictions and addictive behaviors are appealing because they offer immediate relief from psychological pain and anxiety. However the relief is only temporary; they never provide a lasting solution to our problems. When we "sober up" we find that our emotional pain is still there.

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A serious side effect of addictive behaviors is that they do not only cut off pain and anxiety, they cut off all feeling. They leave us emotionally numb and unable to really experience our lives. The following list explains types of addictive behaviors that people often engage in that leave them cut off from feeling and cause them to be disconnected from themselves:

1. Addictions to substances

The easiest types of addictive behaviors to identify are addictions to substances. The emphasis here is not on the chemical aspect of addictions but on understanding the psychological purpose they serve in relieving a person of pain and anxiety.

The most obvious addictions are those that involve alcohol, cigarettes and drugs. We are all familiar with the feeling "Right now I really need a cigarette...or a glass of wine...or a cup of coffee...or a valium." These types of thoughts can be clues to you that you are using substances as painkillers.

It is also wise to be aware of rationalizing-the process addicts use to justify their destructive behaviors. "I don't have a smoking problem because I know I could stop whenever I want to." "I don't have an issue with drinking; drinking red wine every day is good for me." "I don't have a drug problem; these were prescribed to me by my doctor."

Think about your thoughts. Do you find yourself wishing for a cigarette, a cup of coffee, a drink, a pill when you feel stressed or tense? Do you find yourself rationalizing your use of any addictive substances? Could you be using alcohol, cigarettes or drugs to cut yourself off from your feelings?

2. Addictions to food

Food can serve an addictive purpose. When it does, people's eating habits take on a meaning beyond the simple enjoyment and gratification of physical hunger. Many people who suffer from eating disorders are utilizing food as a source of emotional gratification.

This process often starts early in life when eating becomes the primary focus for the child who is starved for affection, attention or care. When we abuse food, when we indulge ourselves by overeating, we are protecting ourselves by in effect saying, "I don't need anything from anyone. I can feed myself.!!" Even the anorexic person, in refusing to eat, is still saying "I will not take food from anybody, I don't need anything from anybody, I control what goes in my body.!!"

Think about your eating habits. What function does food serve in your life? Could you be using food in an addictive way?

3. Addictions to activities or routines

These types of activities are harder to recognize as being harmful, because they involve behaviors that are socially acceptable. Society applauds the person who works hard, who is organized, who is physically fit. Therefore, it is easy to not recognize that the workaholic, the obsessive compulsive, the fitness fanatic are people who are hurting themselves. These activities actually release dopamine in the brain and trigger a "reward system" feeling within us. They may seem like a more natural "drug," but they function like a drug nonetheless.

There are many ritualistic or repetitive behaviors that can be used as painkillers. Almost any behavior, when used repeatedly, will cut us off from feelings and therefore become addictive. This is why we feel compelled to overwork, shop too much, exercise too hard and spend too much time watching television, playing video games, browsing the internet, reading, gambling, and the list goes on. The predictability and certainty of routines also act to temporarily reduce tension and anxiety. This is why we want to structure our lives with the same daily schedule, the same weekly diet, the same annual vacation.

Think about your daily life. What are the activities that you may be utilizing in a repetitive, ritualistic way? Could you be using compulsive activities and routines to avoid feeling?

4. Addictions to sex

When young children are hurting emotionally, they realize that they can make themselves feel better by stroking and soothing themselves. Later, when they discover that touching themselves on the genitals is pleasurable, they can use masturbation as an escape from their psychological pain. Masturbation can become addictive because it is such an instant tension reliever. There is nothing wrong with masturbation but as with other activities, it can be destructive when used compulsively as a painkiller to cut off from feelings.

Think about how you feel when you masturbate. Are your thoughts and feelings at the time taking you away from your real life experience? How do you feel afterwards? Do you feel good or do you feel "out of it?" Could you be using masturbating as a way of cutting off from your feelings?

Sex, like food, is a vital enjoyable part of life that, when misused, can be serve an addictive purpose. Compulsive sexual activity and promiscuity cut a person off from feelings. During this type of cut off sexual interaction, a person is usually involved in an inward impersonal fantasy world. Sex is being used as a way of soothing and numbing oneself, not as a way of relating with another person.

Think about how you relate sexually. At times, do you find yourself emotionally removed from your partner and caught up in fantasy or the physicality of sexuality? Could you be using sex to cut yourself off from your feelings?

Read more from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org

Lisa Firestone, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, author, and the Director of Research and Education for the Glendon Association.

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