I have been thinking about addictions this week, both for my patients and myself, as the start of the New Year always brings thoughts about breaking old habits and gives us the chance to start with renewed energy. It’s hard though, January is not the most inspiring month to be denying yourself old coping strategies and easing into a transformation and so I started researching into whether understanding where your addictions come from would help….
It seems it may well do, understanding our self and why we do things is a wonderful way of being non -judgemental and helping to bring about change without beating ourselves up or being too hard. I find in practice this is much more likely to get the result we want, while punishing ourselves for our bad habits is really not conducive to anything more than making ourselves feel worse and then more likely to reach for a coping strategy to soothe the guilt.
I found a wonderful book, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts by Dr Gabor Mate, a Canadian physician who has worked with addictions for 40 years, and was recently awarded the Order of Canada in recognition of his work. He has written four bestselling books and is an expert on addictions and childhood development. He describes how an addiction is any behaviour a person finds pleasure or relief in and therefore craves, but suffers negative consequences as a result; it can be gambling, drugs or alcohol, but also shopping, work, food, internet browsing, Facebook, relationships or sex. These activities are used as a way to escape emotional discomfort or pain, and are a normal response to abnormal circumstances of suffering, usually first incurred in childhood. This means to really deal with them we need to look at the underlying cause, the pain or trauma which is there and is being felt.
Trauma need not be dramatic and is defined not as what happens to a person but what happens within them. In line with its Greek origins, trauma literally means a wound – an unhealed one, and one which the person tries to defend against. This can simply be that as a child you did not have the help or attention to make yourself feel better after a difficult time, or you had unmet emotional needs or lack of attention. Thus, a parent’s emotional distance or depression, without any kind of abuse or intention, can be enough. It leads to the child tensing up and not learning to self-regulate which means they miss out on building resilience.
He explains that the recognition of this trauma is itself the beginning of building resilience, and that first one needs to not be in denial about one’s emotions, then by recognising and accepting the traumatised part of ourselves and taking care of it through self-kindness and self-care we build resilience.
So, it’s back to the buzz word of the moment, self-care, and maybe that is the best commitment we can make to ourselves and one which may actually lead to feeling better about ourselves and not needing those distraction activities anyway. I am a big fan of Yoga and I think this is one easy habit that can help so much in getting us to really connect and care for ourselves. Nurturing ourselves through healthy food can also be really helpful and spending time with people who really care about us…. So please don’t be too hard on yourself if you are struggling to stop bad habits, just be a little kinder and learn to nurture and care for yourself and you might just stop those bad habits so much faster and easier.