Addictions, Obsessions, Compulsions whether they are thoughts or behaviours can endanger our lives, our relationships and limit our capacity to live our lives as we want them. We all have habits, as Norman Doidge says, our brain changes and itself, when we take an action which helps us to survive or alleviate our suffering that neural pathway grows, this gives us both our wonderful possibility to change and heal but also makes habitual behaviour and thoughts so compelling, because the more we do a thing or think a thought the easier it is for that to happen and we set up a default state.
Another thing that makes addictions and compulsions so hard to change is that commonly to cope with one strategy which isn’t working we replace it with another, so we exchange food for cigarettes, sleep for workaholism, anxious thoughts for suicidal ideation or any number of things, often a gambling addiction can happen concurrently with a substance abuse addition or a food addiction with procrastination and so on, so we replace the habit or add to it rather than change what the habit is a response to.
Mark Lewis in his book The Biology of Desire and Dr Gabor Maté work speak to the cause of addiction and the reason behind it’s strength. Addiction and compulsions arise from overwhelming pain and suffering and Brainspotting to overcome addictions operates from the ‘anti-oppressive’ model, not a victim blaming one, guilt and shame do not liberate us but keep us locked in with the problem, so one piece of work is learning to recognise the difficulties that brought the addiction into being.
“The problem survivors’ experience in their bodies…splitting, numbing, addictions begin as attempts to survive” (Davis and Bass, 1988)
Survivors can be incredibly tough, especially with themselves and it can be hard to recall the story of how the addiction came about or if it is known it’s impact can be hard to feel, addictions help us numb the pain and keep away from it so we often think that the reason ins’t enough to explain our current problem, but the feeling of being trapped if we don’t complete the action and the short term relief having completed it are often clearer.
When we bring a Brainspotting lens to Addiction we may witness the ‘developmental cascade’ (Mark Lewis) from our childhood, further narrowed and refined by subsequent shocks and losses to our current situation, the story of how a habit became an entrenched addiction.
In our sessions we make use of the Felt Sense Polyvagal Model of Addiction constructed by Jan Winhall in consultation with Steve Porges which help us to identify different states of the nervous system, including the fold-collapsed part – the fixate-freeze part and fight-flight part which keep us locked away from the social engagement part of our nervous system with links to playful, flowing and fun parts of ourselves in which we can relate to ourselves and others.
The work we do integrates with Dan Siegal’s Interpersonal Neurobiology and can be experienced as ‘felt shifts’ in the body, using the language of Gene Gendlin and I draw a lot on my training as a Focusing-oriented Therapist here, we can draw on safe-enough, calm-enough experiences to give ourselves a sense of groundedness and clarity as we work and build up experiences of engaging with the world in a mindful way. We make strategies to reduce harm, be accountable, engage in supportive relationships, daily experiences of having fun give the nervous system fresh experiences to engage with.
Addiction is when we shift between a series of painful states, working together directly with the nervous system in sessions we have the opportunity to experience moments of regulation, calm and safe-enough and these help us build our sense of being safe-enough in the future, rather than in a permanent state of fear of relapse.