"Perhaps the most startling recent discovery about the brain is that feelings themselves can be addictive."

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Episode 30 -- July 27, 2020

Four Ways to Resist and Recover from Addictive Emotions

You might agree with the statement, "Nothing feels better than feeling bad." Misery loves company, and we love to be loved. We stew in it. We soak in it until our fingers get pruney. Why? In some of us, the neurochemicals associated with negative emotions trip the reward centers of our brains and we become addicted to unhappiness (along with whatever other substances or behaviors have learned this trick). Now, we tend to be swimming in worry, fear, anger, and uncertainty due to the pandemic--which isn't helpful as we're already working hard on ourselves in our recovery. In his book, A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Principles: Living the Values Behind the Steps, Dr. Patrick Carnes offers four strategies for rewiring our emotional pathways. By creating stillness, telling our stories, practicing positive self-talk, and reconnecting with others, we can rebuild and reclaim the functions of a healthy brain.

This except is from A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Principles by Dr. Patrick Carnes and has been edited for brevity.

Perhaps the most startling recent discovery about the brain is that feelings themselves can be addictive. This is true not only of pleasurable emotions, but of anger, fear, despair, loneliness, grief, and other painful emotions as well. When you give in to road rage, you energize your own brain with neurochemicals that are part of the brain's stress response. Those chemicals juice up the brain's reward centers, which is why it feels so "good" to get angry. The feelings and cravings created by these neurochemicals themselves are highly addictive.

This also explains why people often cultivate and cling to painful emotions. They are unwilling to give up feeling bad because these unpleasant emotions create a shortcut to the brain's reward centers. We end up addicted to our own unhappiness, and this addiction can then interact with other addictions or compulsions.

There are several proven methods and practices for intervening with and rewiring these destructive emotional pathways. They are:

  • Creating stillness through meditation, journaling, etc.
  • Telling your story
  • Practicing positive self-talk
  • Reconnecting with others

First, let's look at Creating Stillness.
Hundreds of studies have demonstrated that we can heal our brain, temper our emotions, reduce our stress, and increase our serenity by practicing stillness: being quiet, alone, and present to ourselves. Mindfulness meditation, whereby we sit quietly watching our breath and thoughts without judgment, is one of the more effective ways that people have achieved this.

Stillness can involve other forms of meditating, praying, writing in a journal, or just relaxing quietly in nature. (Reading, browsing the Internet, and watching videos all focus our attention externally, so they don't qualify.) Our brain needs thirty to ninety minutes of stillness each day in order to heal optimally and operate at its best.

Next, let's look at Telling Your Story.
Each of us has an internal narrative about our life. We use this narrative as a way to see the world and explain it to ourselves. In recovery, we regularly rewrite and retell our story so that it includes new perceptions, understandings, and conclusions. Recent science has revealed that as we do this, we appear to actually rewire our brain by building new, more functional neural pathways. Over time, as we continue to rewrite and retell our story to ourselves and others, it makes sense that we would strengthen and deepen those pathways, providing ever more support for our recovery.

Telling our story to others also helps our brains in another way. Our brains contain nerve cells called mirror neurons that appear to be the biological corollary to our ability to put ourselves in others' shoes and respond emotionally to their experiences. Brain scans have revealed the mirror neurons in two people's brains seem to take on the same patterns when they report feeling emotionally connected to each other. In feeling connected to others, we also help heal our brain.

A third way to rewire your destructive emotional pathways is Practicing Positive Self-Talk.
There's another form of self-talk besides telling our stories that can help us in our recovery: mindful inner dialog. This involves having mindful conversations in our head with different parts of ourselves, with our emotions, with people who are unavailable to us in person, and with particular problems or situations. These conversations can be purely mental, but we can also speak them aloud or write them out.

Mindful inner dialog is deeply important to changing and healing the brain. It helps the brain to relax and become open to new solutions and ideas. When I get stuck, I sometimes convene a mental panel of the different therapists I've had. I imagine them sitting around a table with me, and I ask them questions and listen carefully to their answers. This imaginary conversation often reveals a solution or observation that I'd overlooked, and wouldn't have been able to access in any other way.

I've often suggested this process of internal dialog to patients, and the feedback I have received af¿rms the value of this process. My patients discovered that they have more insight about themselves than they realized. They learn to access parts of their brains that had previously been out of reach.

Finally, help direct yourself toward the positive by Reconnecting with Others.
As we practice the Twelve Principles, we gain more experience in telling the truth and having dif¿cult conversations with others. Some of these involve making sincere apologies and amends. Some require us to challenge prevailing beliefs, other people, or ourselves. Some demand that we set or reset personal boundaries. Some involve ending or rede¿ning old relationships. Virtually all such conversations strengthen our brain's mirror neuron systems, build empathy, and help us to work out whatever we're struggling with.

These healing practices--practicing mindful stillness, telling your story, talking to yourself, and having dif¿cult conversations with others--all help to create an inner observer. This is an internal chief operating officer that mindfully observes the functioning of all other parts of the brain.

Our inner observer can warn us when our addiction is trying to seduce us; when we have fallen into stinking thinking; when we are afraid, anxious, or stressed; when we have the urge to ¿ee or hide; or when we need to ask for help. Our inner observer can also remind us to tell the truth, to stay present in the midst of painful and difficult emotions, to recall the wisdom of the Twelve Steps and Twelve Principles, and to do the next right thing. Our inner observer is our seat of self-awareness. Over time, as we practice the Twelve Principles in all our affairs, it can also become a source of wisdom and a vital force for self-transcendence.

Everyone could use some help in moving away from our destructive tendencies toward more positive feelings. For more guidance in practicing the Twelve Principles, please read A Gentle Path Through the Twelve Principles by Dr. Patrick Carnes.

About the Author
Patrick J. Carnes, Ph.D., is an internationally known authority on addiction and recovery issues. He has authored over twenty books including the bestselling titles Out of the Shadows: Understanding Addiction Recovery, Betrayal Bond, Don't Call It Love, and A Gentle Path through the Twelve Steps, now in an updated and expanded edition. Dr. Carnes's research provides the architecture for the "task model" of treating addictions that is used by thousands of therapists worldwide and many well-known treatment centers, residential facilities, and hospitals. He is the executive director of the Gentle Path Program at Pine Grove Behavioral Health in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which specializes in dedicated treatment for sexual addiction. For more information on his work and contributions, log on to patrickcarnes.com and sexhelp.com. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

© 2012 by Patrick Carnes
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