I am a magnet for bad habits and addictions. I know I am not alone in this. I have spoken to scores of men who have developed unwanted patterns in their work, relationships, stress management, and leisure. Part of what puzzled me about my habits over the years is that many of them are things I don’t really want to do, but it seemed like my mind would shift into automatic pilot time and again, allowing me to live out some impulse that I’d just as soon avoid. The following is a newspaper column I wrote looking at brain functions and why they make habitual behaviors so difficult to break.
This article was originally published in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 9/9/15.
There was a large wooded park with a lake behind the house my family lived in while I was attending high school. During the four years we lived in that home, my siblings and I frequently spent hours wandering through the woods around that lake. When we did, we usually walked along the trails and paths, because it was easier. Occasionally, I remember straying from the well-worn paths and crashing through the brush. This usually took longer and resulted in scratches, scrapes, and swearing to yourself that you’d stick to the path next time. The reason is obvious: well-worn pathways are easier to travel. There is a similar phenomena that takes place within the human brain. We all have a portion of our brain that controls motor functions and handles our actions/reactions during times of stress, often referred to as fight-or-flight moments. In moments when thinking isn’t possible and the body needs to act quickly, our actions will tend to follow the “well-worn paths” that exist within our brains. This is why athletes and soldiers practice the same movements over and over in training, to prepare them to act without thinking. It sometimes leads to strange behaviors under pressure. I recently read about soldiers collecting spent cartridges in combat, mimicking their repeated behavior on the shooting range. It’s a terrible decision to collect brass while being shot at, but the point is that it isn’t a decision. It’s rehearsed behavior. This is an extraordinary example, but there are far more common ones, like when a person reaches for a cigarette or drink without thinking – especially during times of stress. There’s a part of the brain that knows that a drink or a smoke helps manage stress, which makes this an easy pathway to develop in our brains.
A far more common example of this is seen in bad habits, particularly communication and coping habits that folks develop in their relationships. We learn to fight certain ways, and breaking those habits is difficult because it’s what we’ve memorized through repeated practice. We know our arguing strategies or our escape plans and go to them almost instinctively. Married couples often find themselves having arguments that follow the same course as every previous argument they’ve had over the last several years. Husbands sometimes respond to arguing by shutting down and running for the safety of the tv, late work days, or just hanging out in the garage. Wives learn to argue as effectively as possible or to hide out by focusing on the kids or some other part of life other than their spouse. The pattern repeats and repeats, even when it doesn’t make sense anymore or when both parties realize and acknowledge that it’s making them miserable. This is largely because they have found a pathway in their brains that works, even if it doesn’t. This easy path becomes the “go to” rut that they get stuck in, largely because it is practiced and repeated so often. Changing these trained behaviors can be terribly difficult, as anyone who has ever tried to break a bad habit knows. Success can frequently be short-circuited by new stress or frustration, which sends the individual running back to the old behavior. The last few installments of this column have looked at poor communication habits that develop in marriage. Part of what makes these habits so very difficult to break is that developed pathway. We learn them and they stay learned until we unlearn them. Unlearning involves an intentional effort to change our attitude and that couples work as a team in changing the relationship patterns. Only by intentional working together, sometimes with the assistance of a counselor, (or by an act of God) are most of well-worn pathways replaced with new healthier ones. The first step is always to acknowledge the problem and choose to work toward overcoming the habit.
Wives, submit to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit in everything to their husbands. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. In the same way husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one ever hated his own flesh, but nouris hes and cherishes it, just as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband. Ephesians 5:22-33
I love my wife dearly. I believe that she is a gift from God, who has made me a better man during the 17 years we have been married. I will confess that those 17 years have not always been a fairy tale where the young lovers live happily ever after. There have been more than a few frustrating days and fights. It’s strange how easy it is to be angry with someone who you care for so deeply. I often hear people say that they are far meaner and find it easier to be angry toward their loved ones than they would be toward strangers or acquaintances. Anger is powerful and can be dangerous to relationships. It is important to deal with it appropriately and effectively, lest it take root and grow into bitterness that poisons the whole relationship. The following are simple, Biblical steps to take in dealing with anger.
There’s a saying that originated in AA: You are only as sick as your secrets. The more an addict hides their sickness, the worse it will become. Without outside assistance, recovery is nearly impossible. This is particularly the case with pornography addiction. Recovery from pornography addiction comes with some significant hurdles to beginning and sustaining recovery. Perhaps the biggest challenge in beginning the pr ocess of recovery is overcoming the shame associated with the addiction. This is particularly the case because of the social stigma accompanying sexual problems. This stigma and its bedfellow, shame, keep pornography addicts hiding in the darkness, often knowing that they need help, but unwilling to seek it out of fear of the judgement of others. This is particularly the case for married addicts, who risk losing their spouse by coming clean about their problem. The secretiveness makes recovery nearly impossible because of the nature of addiction. Simply put, addiction is a disease in which the stimulus reward process in the brain begins to dominate the addict’s behavior. The process reaches a point where the addict simply cannot stop using. In fact, one of the diagnostic criteria for addiction is repeated, failed attempts to control using. Pornography addicts may do this by deciding to quit using altogether, only to start again later. They may also try to come up with artificial ways of limiting their pornography consumption or the time spent searching for or looking at porn. These efforts inevitably fail. Secrecy eliminates the support essential to the recovery process for the following reasons:
Addicts need accountability: The inability of the addict to control their using through their own efforts means that they cannot effect change without outside help. They need other people to confess their failings and struggles, too. Further, they need outside perspectives regarding the best way to deal with their temptations and struggles. This is particularly important for pornography addiction, where using can be so easily hidden.
Addicts need help working through thinking errors: Another major complication that secrecy brings to recovery is related to thinking problems. Addicts develop sophisticated thinking mechanisms to protect their using. Thinking errors can be very difficult to identify without outside input and discussion. Further, addicts can easily become overwhelmed by their faulty thinking, which can be extraordinarily difficult to untangle. This requires the addict to talk through their thinking on different issues with other addicts.
Addicts need someone to talk to for stress relief: The stimulus reward cycle gets out of control when using becomes the primary mode for dealing with stressors, or more accurately, avoiding dealing with stressors. The accumulated negative feelings and memories put constant pressure on the addict and perpetuate the cycle of addiction. Recovery requires that the addict have access to individuals who can listen as the addict talks out their stressors. They need an outlet to let off emotional steam. Without it, the addict will simply go back to using.
Addicts need perspective: Talking with those who have successfully gone through recovery is helpful to the addict because it makes it clear that the journey has a destination that is reachable. Further, addicts tend to blow things out of proportion. They need outside input to keep the scale of situations clear in their minds. Without this scale, the addict can easily get overwhelmed by circumstances.
Addicts need help focusing: It’s easy for addicts to get distracted or to come up short regarding what they need to do next. Input from an outside perspective can help the addict to keep focused and take the steps necessary for recovery. It’s very easy to become distracted and to drift away from working toward recovery. Addicts need outside support to prevent them from losing focus.
One of the major difficulties with opening up about pornography addiction is finding appropriate people to begin talking with. Ministers or counselors are a decent place to start. Both are common in most communities. I also recommend Samson and the Pirate Monks by Nate Larkin or through the associated website: http://www.samsonsociety.com. The Samson Society website is a good resource for finding recovery meetings and materials.