Tag Archives: addiction

Understanding Pornography Addiction

Cycle_of_AbuseIt’s easy to understand how alcohol or cocaine are addictive substances, but when it comes to pornography addiction understanding the issues involved can be more difficult for a variety of reasons. For starters, discovering a hidden pornography habit can result in significant feelings of betrayal for a wife and can make understanding the addiction component very difficult. In addition, pornography use carries some stigma, which clouds perspective and makes understanding the addiction more difficult. However, pornography addiction is a real illness, it’s diagnosable, and it’s treatable. Looking at pornography produces similar brain functions that take place with using cocaine. It is highly addictive for the same reasons as any other drug. This is not to excuse the betrayal of a spouse or anything of the sort. Rather, it is to say that an individual can develop an illness, which prevents them from quitting the behavior. Let there be no mistake, addicts cannot stop a behavior on their own. Denial, thinking errors, shame, and an out-of-control reward response system in their brains literally result in the addictive patterns becoming compulsive.

A behavior is an addiction, rather than just being a set of sinful decisions, if it features certain common qualities:
  1. Increased tolerance– Increased tolerance as it relates to pornography use involves getting into increasingly harder-core porn or much more of it in order to achieve the same results that were achieved with less before. Increased frequency of use can also be associated with increased tolerance.
  2. Withdrawal- Withdrawal from pornography use can involve cravings, restlessness, anxiety, depression, etc. Withdrawal doesn’t necessarily happen instantly. It can take as much as a week or more to fire up.
  3. Continued use despite harm- When an addict recognizes that their addiction is hurting them, they continue to use. They may get caught, feel shame, or other negative effects, but they do not stop, largely because they cannot.
  4. Using more or for longer periods than intended- This is essentially a loss of control. A pornography addict will struggle with limiting their use. They may intend to look for only a few minutes, but then spend hours using porn. Addicts often comment that they are never really sure how long their using episodes may last.
  5. Attempts to control use- Pornography addicts may swear over and over again that they will never use again, but they will inevitably find themselves using again. They may try to come up with ways to prevent themselves from looking at porn, but they will inevitably find ways around these measures.
  6. Excessive time spent acquiring pornography or thinking about using– People who become addicted to pornography find themselves spending more and more time thinking about using it or hunting for new and different porn. This is especially the case for those who are hiding their addiction from family members, which then requires them to spend enormous amounts of time protecting their addiction by hiding it.
  7. Reduced involvement in work, social, or family obligations- Pornography addiction becomes increasingly time consuming as the addiction advances in severity,  withdrawing from obligations as they get in the way of using.

In order to be diagnosed as an addiction, the individual must exhibit three or more of these criteria.

Dealing with the problem is uniquely difficult for pornography addiction for several reasons. For starters, hiding pornography use from a spouse is much easier than hiding substance abuse. As a result, treating the addiction can involve revealing some huge and hurtful secrets. In addition, pornography addiction is far less recognized and exists more in the shadows of our culture. Consequently, there are far fewer support group and treatment options. This is not to say that pornography addiction is a hopeless situation. Dealing with it begins with acknowledging that the problem has gotten out of control and turning control of your life over to God. Seeking help from an addictions counselor, a pastor, or a support group is a good next step. There are several terrific resources available as well. I highly recommend the book: Sampson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood by Nate Larkin. It is the best book I have read on the subject that is written for the average man.

Pornography addiction is treatable and there is hope. Further, as long as the addiction is out of control and untreated, the addict will live with a significant degree of fear and shame. There is also a constant danger of discovery, particularly by any children who live in the home. Early exposure to pornography by a parent is very common among addicts, largely because kids find their way into all sorts of things that you never intend for them to get into. Taking the first difficult steps toward dealing with addiction are difficult, but worthwhile once the painful early stages have been worked through.

For its part, the church needs to learn to look past the inclination to judge, protect the privacy of those seeking help, and learn to offer help to addicts who are seeking help. This may require specialized training and some uncomfortable topics being addressed from the pulpit at times, but its part of our calling to be salt and light to the world.
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Addictive Thinking Errors: Miracle Thinking

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This is a rewrite of a column I wrote that was published in the mountaineer in July of this year.

“If I could just move to Florida, then I’ll be happy.” These words were spoken by a young man I was working with in a rehab program. He was a drug addict, had a list of convictions longer than my arm, his family life was a disaster, he was financially destitute, his education and job skills were non-existent; but he firmly believed that a geographical relocation was going to solve all of his personal woes. In reality, moving would change nothing. You simply cannot run far enough away to escape yourself. He was his own problem. His drug addiction was destroying his life. However, the work needed to deal with the problems he had accumulated was far more daunting than simply moving. This is an example of miracle thinking. Miracle thinking is essentially when a person comes to believe that their problems will be solved by accomplishing a simple, often unrelated task.

Miracle thinking comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes, but the common factor is that it generally doesn’t directly address or solve the presenting problem. It’s an easy option. I have spoken to people who believe that if they can just find Mr. or Mrs. Right then they’ll be content, or if they could just change jobs they’d be happy, or if they could get a new spouse they’d stop drinking. The specific form of the miracle can vary, but it usually involves externalizing blame for problems/feelings and a way out of the situation that is often unrelated and easier than dealing with the real problem. In reality, a single, depressed person who enters a new relationship may experience a flush of enjoyment, but will ultimately wind up depressed again. An alcoholic who moves to a new community will just find a new place and people to drink with.

Miracle thinking is a thinking error that is not confined to problems like chemical dependance. People use miracle thinking in relation to debt, marital difficulties, depression, weight problems, anger issues, and all sorts of other issues.

UnknownFiguring out if your solution to a problem is miracle thinking is difficult, and usually requires an outside opinion to help assess the thought. Outside feedback should come from a person who will be forward and honest enough to explain whether or not a planned solution is realistic or likely to pan out. In addition, the individual ought to have a history of making healthy choices. This sort of evaluation is especially important if an individual is dealing with an issue that is particularly difficult or if you recognize a pattern of drastic solutions that simply don’t work out.

The difficulty in self assessing thinking errors, like miracle thinking, is due largely to denial and clouded thinking that is typical among addicts. Self assessment is best accomplished by asking exactly how the solution will resolve the issue at hand. If the explanation is not likely to pan out as true, if evidence from past situations suggests that the solution is viable, or if it will not logically produce any real change; then it is likely miracle thinking. Its important to understand that miracle thinking isn’t a result of a person being crazy or broken. Instead, it comes about when a person’s thinking is clouded by strong emotions, stress, exhaustion, or mental protections of an addiction.

Regardless of whether or not miracle thinking is an issue, the practice of consulting with others for advice when dealing with major issues is a wise practice.
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6 Ways to Deal with Anxiety

Timageshis afternoon, I was sitting in the pharmacy in town reading. Something that I read, which was minor and not offensive, triggered an anxiety attack. Anyone who has ever had an anxiety attack can attest that they are no picnic. Typically, mine begin with my heart racing, my chest tightening, my brain shifting into high gear, jaws clenching shut, and my breath shortening. Sometimes these anxiety attacks pass quickly, but sometimes they leave me agitated for hours. I don’t have these attacks often, perhaps once a month or less, though in the past I’ve had them daily. Most folks I know who experience them recognize them as a little slice of hell.
Learning to deal with anxiety attacks has been a slow process. I tend to approach problems by wanting to know as much as possible, so I’ve researched the topic to death and have found that most materials are less than helpful. Through trial and error, I have found a handful of things that make a difference. Here is my top 6 and one to avoid:
man-114437_640Recognizing that anxiety is not the same thing as being crazy. The stigma associated with these sorts of issues can often be the biggest challenge that prevents you from dealing with the issue. Anxiety is not craziness. Anxiety attacks can be connecting to a handful of things. Often they are connected with the fight or flight mechanism in your brain. Certain stimuli become associated with the fear/fight or flight response and trigger it. That’s all. It’s actually a natural defense mechanism that part of your brain employs to protect you from danger. It’s just sometimes that mechanism is terribly inconvenient.
Exercise: Very little ends an anxiety attack for me as quickly as quickly as lifting weights, going running, or even going for a brisk walk. There are a few reasons that this is an effective strategy. For starters, exercise triggers the release of endorphins, which are a sort of happy chemical in your brain. Endorphins will usually calm you and lift your mood. Regular exercise can actually help alleviate depression and decrease the frequency of anxiety attacks. The other thing that exercise does for you is physiological. Getting your heart rate up and using energy can burn off some of the nervous energy that causes anxiety attacks. Further, heavy breathing can help cleanse adrenaline and other chemicals from your blood.
Prayer, meditation, and deep breathing: I hate this one. Not because I hate prayer, meditation, or deep breathing in and of themselves. Rather, I wonder if the guys suggesting it have ever had an anxiety attack. It’s really hard to stop and be calm enough to pray or meditate. In general, however, regular prayer and meditation can help decrease the frequency of attacks. This is particularly the case when individual people or situations are triggers for anxiety attacks. Praying for those people can help lessen fear of dealing with them. In addition, learning to slow down and focus during anxious episodes, though difficult, can be effective. I suggest starting with deep breathing. It’s the easiest place to begin and, as I stated earlier, can help lessen symptoms. From focused breathing, prayer or meditating over scripture is a short step.
w8ytvvDiet: I have read that decreasing caffeine consumption can decrease frequency of anxiety issues. I’m not sure if giving up coffee would be worse than the attacks, so I have’t tried. I take fish oil pills, which research suggests can help reduce anxiety and encourages the production of serotonin.
Exposure: I’m gonna say it: this one is miserable, but can be effective. If a particular identifiable trigger causes anxiety attacks, you can actually decrease its impact on your by slowly exposing yourself to the stimuli in small doses. As you do so, you will eventually harden yourself to the trigger. For example, anxiety that is triggered by certain social situations can be lessened by increasingly exposing yourself to those situations. Doing so will slowly decrease the fear response. It’s essentially facing your fear. There are ways to do this more effectively, and a counselor might be helpful to guide you through the process.
Counseling and Medication: Unfortunately, the stigma associated with seeking help from a counselor often prevents folks from talking to them until the pain associated with anxiety becomes overwhelming. A good counselor can help a client learn skills that can effectively help a person cope with or eliminate anxiety issues or deal with the emotional issues that are at the root of the matter.
Self Medicating: Folks who suffer from anxiety problems sometimes resort to self medicating with alcohol or illicit substances. While alcohol can alleviate symptoms of anxiety, this approach is problematic because using mood altering substances as a primary coping response can lead to dependency. In general, developing a lifestyle that lessens their frequency and learning to cope with anxiety is a better strategy.
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Willy Wonka and Lasting Happiness

willy_wonka___gene_wilder_by_94cape69-d7b1h0cOne of my favorite books and movies of all time is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I particularly love the way that the story depicts the children who visit the chocolate factory for the tour, with four of the five children suffering from glaring personality flaws. For example, Verruca Salt is a spoiled brat who gets everything she wants, but still wants more, or Augustus Gloop, who eats ravenously and is never satisfied. Several times while I was working as a youth pastor, I showed this film to groups of kids and asked them which of the children was probably happiest. Typically, the kids would respond that the characters who got whatever they wanted were the happiest. The reasoning seems obvious: If you always get what you want, you’ll be happy. After further discussion, most students recognize that the characters who always get whatever they want aren’t truly happy. Whenever they get what they want, their bliss passes quickly and they move on to the next want. Their happiness never lasts. For example, Verruca would decide she wanted a pony or some toy. Her father would give it to her and she would respond by asking for something else. When she got what she wanted, she would again ask for something else. All happiness that is found in possessions or circumstances is temporary. It must then be followed up with some new possession or experience in order to sustain the happiness. Verruca is a bit of a caricature, but demonstrates the concept well. In addition, we see real life examples of this every Christmas, when the internet has been replete with examples of teenagers complaining to Twitter and Facebook about how terrible their parents are for giving them the wrong color of iPod or that they received gifts instead of cash. Another common example is found in folks that run up huge debts buying new cars, clothes, and toys that they will never be able to pay for. They keep doing it because they need more stuff to be ok in life, as the happiness passes from their original purchase.

It’s like a mosquito bite. You scratch the itch and it feels better momentarily, only to begin itching again. The more you scratch the itch, the worse it gets, until your skin is raw and bleeding.charlie Attempting to sustain our happiness through temporary means produces the same result in our soul. We scratch the itch over and over again, only to find that the practice changes us. It leaves us emptier than we were when we started. The reason that this pathway to happiness can never work is because it is an attempt to fill an emptiness in the soul. Philosopher Blaise Pascal describes it as a void that God had intended to  occupy. Everyone has it. The problem is that only God can properly fill it. We can mask the emptiness with possessions, experiences, or alcohol, but in the end, it always comes back. Paul wrote in his letter to the Philippians that he had learned the secret to living in any circumstance, whether he was poor or rich, hungry or well fed. It’s worth noting that he wrote this while sitting in a maximum security prison facing the possibility and being executed for preaching about Jesus. He still was able to point to a contentment that was not based on his experience. That contentment was found in his relationship with Jesus and the hope he had for eternity with Christ. Paul relied on God for all of his needs. He recognized physical discomfort as a temporary condition that would pale in comparison to heaven. When he was hungry or in pain, he looked to God for context and relief. Ultimately, this resulted in Paul becoming the sort of person that could be content and joyful no matter what befell him. This lasting joy stands in stark contrast to the temporary satisfaction we feel when we get a new toy, eat a delicious meal, or go on a stellar vacation. Even more impressive is that this lasting joy is free and available to anyone who would simply choose to engage in relationship with Christ.

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The Fatal Component of Addiction is Denial

One of the more difficult to grasp concepts about addiction is denial. denialDenial is the component of addiction that is actually fatal. This seems counterintuitive, because addiction typically features all sorts of destructive patterns and practices that seem to the part of addiction that kills you, but the reality is that what kills the addict is the inability to recognize the severity of the situation.

Denial is a thinking mechanism that enables the addict to effectively lie to themselves. All sorts of terrible things happen to the addict, like health problems, legal consequences, relationships disintegrating, loss of employment, or financial problems. These are often directly connected to the addict’s behaviors. Even highly functional addicts experience problems, but deterioration is inevitable. Because their addiction demands more and more of their attention and energy, they are unable to invest in their social and work obligations. Regardless of how bad things get for the addict, denial prevents them from associating their difficulties with using or to recognize that they have developed a serious problem. It’s not intentional, but rather the product of their illness that keeps them focused on everything except the connection between addiction and their problems. Because of denial, the addict gets sicker and sicker without recognizing it. Eventually, it is the lack of recognition that prevents them from working to stop their addictive patterns and results in their death. Denial is fatal because it keeps the addict from seeking help. They anesthetize themselves against most of the pain of consequences by using and blame the rest on other causes.

Typically, denial is broken when the addict experiences so much pain as a result of their using that they wake up to the problem. This is typically referred to as “hitting the bottom.” Unfortunately, the bottom is usually so bad that it kills the addict. Sometimes an addict will swear they won’t use again after an unpleasant experience and attempt to control their using. This fails and memories of the unpleasant experience are hidden behind the denial mechanism. Typically, these moments of clarity are not all-encompassing enough to really break down denial. The first step of the Alcoholics Anonymous program is acknowledging that life has become unmanageable, that the addict cannot control their behavior and that their addiction is destroying them. This is the level of acknowledgement that is necessary for the addict to begin recovery. They have to recognize that they are really sick. If an addict gets help or joins a group of other addicts, this can often lead to them coming to the realization that they are sick, largely because the recovering addicts can typically connect with other addicts in ways that non-addicts don’t necessarily emulate well. In the early days of AA, members would go to addicts in hospitals and sanitariums and proselytize them into the program. Addicts were able to successfully engage other addicts in ways that others weren’t. They could cut through denial because they understood it from the inside.

There are other ways that denial can be broken. For example, interventions put the consequences and impact of the addict’s behavior in front of them in order to force them to face up to reality. They are told about the effects their addiction is having on their loved ones, which prevents them from avoiding the reality of the situation. Another way for breaking denial is by convincing an addict to start treatment through motivational interviewing or other therapeutic techniques, but ultimately they cannot make progress until their denial is dealt with. Facing the consequences of their actions is an important component of beginning recovery. As long as they are protected from the natural consequences of their actions, they cannot begin to wake up to the severity of the situation.
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Why They Can’t Stop: How Addiction Works

It’s hard to watch a loved one self destruct, to watch them repeatedly engage in behaviors that are clearly destroying them. Addiction is perplexing to watch from the outside because the addict time and again acts in ways that are obviously destructive to everyone else who is watching, but for some reason the addict just won’t stop. It can be particularly difficult to understand why they are unable to overcome the problem behavior because tremendous pain and a sense of betrayal are often inflicted when a loved one doesn’t stop getting drunk or high. That pain makes dealing with the problem even more difficult because it tends to make careful consideration difficult. It’s hard to think through a situation that you just want to be over because it is destroying the family, because, as an addict, they cannot stop on their own power. It seems obvious that the addict just needs to stop, but the situation is seldom as simple as that. One of the first steps to coming to grips with the situation is understanding the mechanism of addiction and why the addict engages in self-destructive behavior.
In the early 20th century, Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov’s famous experiment demonstrated the principle of classical conditioning. He did this by ringing a bell every time he fed a group of dogs. The dogs would salivate in response to the bell as they anticipated their meal. After thoroughly establishing the pattern, Pavlov began to ring the bell without providing food. The dogs salivated anyaddictionway, which demonstrates that their brains learned to associate the ringing of bells with eating even when there was no food present. Human brains have the same tendency. We learn to associate stimuli with certain feelings or having needs met. As the behavior is learned, they develop ingrained patterns, which become become compulsive. Understanding classical conditioning is an important first step to grasping how addiction works in human beings.
A person doesn’t become an addict by simply gambling too much or getting drunk frequently. Addiction takes place when the stimulus response mechanism in the brain gets out of control and begins to dominate the addict’s life. This often happens to people who lack healthy coping skills. Because they don’t have the ability to deal with stressful situations, they turn to escapes as a way of dealing with stress. Perhaps they have an unpleasant home life, which they aren’t prepared to cope with properly. They do not want to feel bad, but don’t know how to feel better through healthy means. Instead, they turn to alcohol, drugs, pornography, or some other means of escaping the situation. As time goes on, their brains begin to connect unpleasant situations with intoxication and feeling better. Every time something bad happens, they “use” (engage in addiction). As the pattern becomes increasingly ingrained, the individual becomes like Pavlov’s dogs. The bell rings (unpleasant situation happens) and the dog salivates (they respond by using in order to feel better). This pattern of stimulus response reaches the point of being compulsive as the addict gets deeper into their addiction. They literally lose control and cannot restrain their behavior. I have spoken to many addicts who genuinely want tcycle.001o quit, but when they get into certain situations their stimulus-response takes over and they become like passengers in their own bodies, watching passively as they act out their learned behavior. This is because the mechanism of addiction happens in the “old brain”, where things like fight or flight take place. This is the portion of the brain that takes over when thought isn’t the best response to a situation, like with fight or flight responses. It has the ability to take over the body and force the person to behave in predetermined ways. This is the same sort of thing that soldiers train to achieve. When combat happens, thinking turns off and the training kicks in. Addicts are similar, except that their training has been unhealthy and is now destructive.
What makes this addictive pattern really problematic is that as the addict avoids dealing with negative experiences, their brains store up all of the garbage they haven’t processed through. Whenever they sober up, the old feelings begin to find their way back to the front of their feelings/thinking. This makes the addict miserable, so they respond like Pavlov’s dog responds to the ringing bell, by getting intoxicated. Addicts that have advanced in their sickness,are often miserable all the time. Withdrawal also perpetuates the situation. When the body becomes dependent on a chemical, detoxification can be unpleasant, which prompts the stimulus-response cycle to kick in. What’s worse is that even if they begin to deal with their pain and get healthy, the portion of the brain that looks for the enjoyment of intoxication begins to manufacture misery in order to get back to intoxication. This happens in the form of inexplicable depression or anxiety, which is often an overreaction to really minor issues.
Another major component of addiction that makes recovery difficult involves thinking. As an addiction becomes ingrained, the addict’s thinking patterns develop mechanisms to protect the addictive behavior. The most prominent of these thinking tendencies is denial. Denial is when an individual cannot see how bad things are getting. An addict in denial can lose major relationships, have trouble with the law, become physically ill, and never blame it on their using. Most often, problems are either blamed on others or minimized so they’re perceived as not a big deal. Otherwise, problems are just ignored or worked around. An individual in denial cannot recognize the seriousness of their situation, because denial is a mental block preventing them from seeing how bad things are. It exists to keep the addict using. There are other thinking patterns that protect the addiction, but denial is by far the most serious and the most difficult to overcome. An addict in denial can have their whole life in flames and not be able to see that it is caused by their using. It is what allows an addict to destroy themselves without seeking help.
Diagnosing addiction requires the presence of three or more of the following criteria:
  • Developing a tolerance, which results in the addict using more or stronger substances in order to get the same effect. For an alcoholic, this is drinking stronger alcohol -or more of it- in order to get drunk. For a porn addict, this is using porn or looking at harder porn in order to achieve the same effect that less would achieve.
  • Withdrawal symptoms are experienced when the drug is not available. Withdrawal can be physical illness, headaches, shaking, sweats, or other physiological changes. It can also be psychological with the addict becoming irritable, depressed, anxious, or restless.
  • Continued use, despite harm that comes from using. Harm can be financial, damaged relationships, health problems, etc. An addict who loses his loved ones, home, and employment will continue to use even though his addiction is destroying his life.
  • Using the drug in larger amounts or for longer periods than they intended. An addict loses control once they start using. They generally have no idea how much or for how long using episodes will last. A pornography addict will set out to look for only a few minutes, only to look up and discover that they have been looking at porn for hours or more.
  • Attempts to control use that have failed. As the behavior gets out of control, an addict may decide that they need to cut back. Attempts may have limited success, but ultimately fail because they are not truly in control of their behavior.
  • Significant time spent thinking about using or seeking the drug takes place when an addict spends huge amounts of time seeking their drug or thinking about nothing else.
  • Reduced involvement in family, work, or social obligations happens because these activities get in the way of using behaviors. They may avoid family because they do not want to be condemned for using or because they do not wish to share. They experience difficulty fulfilling work obligations because they cannot stop their using behavior.
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