Tag Archives: recovery

Your Bad Habits and Your Brain

head-607480_960_720.jpgI 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.

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Frog, Toad, Cookies, and Temptation

Originally published in the Patching Cracks column in the Big Sandy Mountaineer 4/24/14. I have done some some editing and made some additions here. 
Frog-and-Toad-illustratio-007.jpgOne of my favorite stories to read my daughter at bedtime is from The Adventures of Frog and Toad. In the story, Toad bakes a batch of cookies. He and Frog discover that they cannot stop eating the cookies because they are too delicious. They begin to devise ways to prevent themselves from eating the cookies by making it more difficult to give in to temptation. Frog called it: “Building up willpower.” They quickly discovered that if they wanted to eat the cookies badly enough they would find a way around obstacles. Eventually, Frog throws away all the cookies and proclaims: “we have lots and lots of willpower.” To which Toad responds: “You may keep it all, Frog, I am going home now to bake a cake.” It’s a funny story with an interesting point. The problem wasn’t the cookies, the problem was that they wanted the cookies more than they wanted to not eat them. The book of James touches on this idea when it addresses the things that are in our lives that cause temptation. It’s easy to blame God for giving us such temptations. However, temptation starts in us and are a product of our fallenness. In Romans Paul describes how the sin living in us seizes upon the law of God as a standard to rebel against. Sin drives us to do things we hate. He describes sin and the ensuing temptation as powerful and ruling over our bodies. As a result of this powerful force within us, even if the things we want are not in front of us, if we want them badly enough, we will go looking for them. Mind you, it is not the case that desire itself is bad. Desire is natural. Desire for food, pleasure, leisure, security, relationships, being right, or anything else are simply a part of how people are designed. Desire becomes destructive when it loses all checks and begins to cause damage. It can be seen in decisions made simply based on a desire with no concern for inevitable consequences and what is right or wrong. A common example is carelessly spoken words that are regretted the moment they are spoken. Other examples include extramarital affairs, the seemingly iron grip that pornography seems to have over the lives of many men, addictions, eating disorders, spending problems, etc. These typically involve normally healthy desires that become distorted and get out of control. James describes this as being dragged away by our own lusts. Ultimately, it’s important to recognize that the source of the problem is within us.

The solution for dealing with these sorts of issues begins with recognizing that if our problem is rooted internally, the solution will need to be external to some degree. The Bible describes the solution as allowing God to intervene and aid us in overcoming that which controls us. If we aren’t strong enough to defeat a problem on our own, we need someone who can aid us in doing so. Apart from a higher power intervening, we will find ourselves stuck. Paul explains this in Romans 7 & 8. New life in Jesus through God’s Spirit is the pathway to overcoming temptation. This is achieved through intimate relationship with the savior and discipleship. The Spirit supernaturally intercedes and enables us to overcome temptation. Sometimes this means confessing our sins and seeking accountability with our brothers in Christ. It begins by acknowledging to God that you are helpless to overcome your own sins and that you need Jesus to give us new life. Shortly thereafter we need to actually come under his Lordship by obeying his teachings, joining a body of believers, reading his word, and talking to him regularly.
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A Boy Named Sue and A Different Point of View on Pain

A Boy Named Sue is one of my favorite Johnny Cash songs. Most people are familiar with the tune, but for those who have never encountered Cash’s humorous song, it tells the story of a man whose father was a worthless drunk who abandoned his family. Just before leaving, the drunk cruelly named his son “Sue.” The monicker brought teasing and mockery from an early age, which forced Sue to get tough, fighting anyone who picked on him. Intent on revenge for his unfortunate name, Sue hunts down his father with murder in his heart. Eventually, Sue finds and attempts to kill his father. Before he dies, Sue’s dad explains that the name was intended to toughen his son up, because he knew he wouldn’t stick around to help him learn to be a man. Sue realizes that as much as he hates the terrible name, it has made him into the man he is. The song ends with Sue walking away with a different point of view, thankful that he learned to fight and win through his difficulty.
I relate the content of the song because, though humorous, it makes an interesting point. Over the years, I have counseled with many people who curse bad parents, lament difficult circumstances they went through at different points of their lives, or rage against God for past hurts. Often, these hard circumstances in their lives resulted in them growing resentful or carrying a grudge. In such cases, I usually point to Johnny Cash’s song. I have never met a person who went through difficulty without growing strong, learning important skills, developing a deep sense of empathy, encountering God in a meaningful way, or developing a deep and abiding spirituality. Often, these qualities remain unnoticed in the individual because they simply accept them as a part of surviving hardship. In reality, some of the best qualities in people develop from going through difficulty. Diamonds are formed with intense heat and pressure and gold is refined with intense heat that burns away impurities. Further, God often uses our areas of brokenness to minister to the needs of others with similar issues. There’s a reason Alcoholics Anonymous is so effective. It’s because God is able to us alcoholics’ past brokenness to help deliver other alcoholics from their addictions. I have spoken to all sorts of believers who have effectively ministered from their own broken past, regardless of what the brokenness in their past is.
imagesThere is an important principal in this. Comfort, a sense of meaning, and purpose for difficulty in relation to hard circumstances in our past can be discovered by recognizing God’s refining us through the pain we experienced, reflecting on the good it produced in us, and reflecting on how our experiences have shaped us into the person that we are. Doing so requires that we learn to take a different point of view in relation to our past. This can be terribly difficult, because hardship often creates bitterness, which tends to blind us to anything positive that may come of unfortunate incidents. It can also be hard because it’s easy to confuse finding positive outcomes with being glad a bad thing happened. We don’t have to be happy that tragedy has been present in our lives in order to recognize how hardship has shaped us. We can be thankful for what we have become without having joy at what made us the way we are. Learning to shift our perspective in relation to past pain can bring great comfort and release. As difficult as it is, it becomes easier to shift our perspective the further displaced we are from the events. This is often the first step toward healing.
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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

miracle1
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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