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How To Break Free From The Addictive Fix

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Addictive behaviors are universal. According to the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, abuse of alcohol and illicit drugs costs the United States upwards of $400 billion annually.

In addition to addictive behaviors potentially having a strong genetic link, the increasing stress in our culture makes it obvious why so many of us are craving avoidance and escape.

How do we break free from that next fix?

When caught up in the cycle of addictive behavior, there is an inability to accept whatever is being felt in the present moment and the mind is constantly wandering onto the next "fix." In the present moment, distressing thoughts and emotions can feel like unwanted guests that we can't seem to get away from.

In our fight to avoid this distress, we actually amplify stress and uncomfortable emotions such as sadness, frustration, irritation, shame, or guilt. These uncomfortable emotions often kick us into a state of mindlessness or auto-pilot, where we're unaware of our environment and more susceptible to triggers, cravings and urges.

Victor Frankl, respected Psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, once said: "Between a stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom."

The moment we become aware of that space between stimulus and response is the moment we come in contact with "the now effect," a term I've coined to describe that moment of clarity of what matters and an awareness of the choices, possibilities and opportunities that lie before us.

The question is, is there a way to slow time down to be more aware of that space and choice? In the addiction field specifically, the late Dr. Alan Marlatt, Sarah Bowen and Neha Chawla, psychologists and researchers at the University of Washington, have created a promising new approach toward addiction based on the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) programs, called mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP).

The first randomized control trial was in 2009, with 168 participants who recently completed inpatient and outpatient programs. Not only did participants show good adherence to the mindfulness practices, but they also showed significantly lower scores of relapse and cravings compared to a control group of treatment as usual.

Whether our addictions have to do with alcohol, drugs, food, sex, gambling, emailing or shopping, the addictive behavior is often preceded by some triggering event that sets off a flurry of uncomfortable thoughts, feelings and sensations, leading to cravings and urges to engage in the addictive behavior. An important part of recovery is being able to recognize our triggers and how cravings and urges manifest in our bodies and minds. As soon as we have this awareness, we can step outside of the automatic reactive cycle that enslaves the next moment and enter into that space of awareness where the "now effect" takes root.

Many people have reported that the actual peak of an urge is about 20-30 minutes. In that space of awareness, we can learn to bring an eye of curiosity and non-judgment to the feelings and thoughts as we watch them come and go.

Now, this is easier said than done and takes practice for many, as addictive cravings and impulses can be extremely powerful. When living with addiction, one of the most powerful areas of support is a group. That is the reason for the popularity of 12-step programs and other secular support groups like LifeRing. Kevin Griffin, author of One Breath at a Time, runs classes and retreats that integrate meditation and the 12 steps. In 12-step programs, they often say to take one day at a time; and in mindfulness practice we play with that and say take one moment at a time.

Whether you suffer with addiction or know someone who does, add your comments and questions about your relationship with addiction below as it provides a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.

May you be healthy, happy, and free from the addictive patterns that lead to suffering.

For more by Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D., click here.

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