The Challenge: We get hooked and addicted to anything from chocolate to shopping.
The Science: Research has discovered little-known tools to get us un-hooked.
The Solution: Here are 3 secrets to a happier life and freedom from addiction.
Most of us are addicted to something, be it drugs, alcohol, Iphones, Candy Crush, lattes, Facebook, or porn. The same chemical processes occur in the brain during any addiction. It doesn’t really matter whether your drug of choice comes in liquid form or is battery-operated. The point is that we can all get derailed by this self-defeating cycle.
Take my personal case history as an example: I had my last drink and drug on July 27, 2012, which means I’ve been sober for 96,569,438 seconds. That’s 21 dog years. I now consider myself sober and happy, or “So-Happy.”
There are no words to accurately portray my life before I quit using drugs and alcohol because it was too messy to document. And there are no words to capture my life relative to what came before because I don’t use the same lexicon. Whatever false promises and momentary comfort the bottle provided were microscopic in comparison to the joy, fulfillment, and peace I now experience daily.
In my case, the road from drug addiction and despair to happiness was winding and fraught with peril. And there is research to back up my experience:
One important characteristic of drug addiction is the pursuit of drugs at the expense of other (normally rewarding) activities despite adverse consequences. This suggests that the reward value of drugs becomes magnified to the extent that it displaces other rewards and that the individual’s ability to accurately assess the adverse consequences of drug use (or at least to act on this assessment) is severely compromised (Durrant, Adamson, Todd, and Sellman, 2009, p. 1051).
That futile chase ended when I discovered the valuable tools I’m going to share with you. My sincere hope is that my own experience can spare you some of the heartache I endured. With that in mind, here are the top three weapons in my recovery arsenal:
- Breathwork & Meditation
- Community Service
It’s a simple recipe that doesn’t require an elaborate budget. A yoga mat + a dash of willingness and voilà: Sobriety is served! I admit that basic equations might give short shrift to the complexities of recovery. Yet it makes clear that the mat is where it begins. And it demonstrates how, after the sweat dries, the process continues. Fortunately, there’s a science behind these modalities, one which uncovers a sophisticated apparatus and an intricate system of brain mechanics worthy of exploring.
Controlled breathing techniques often used in yoga practices can rapidly reduce anxiety and arousal by bringing the body to a physiologically relaxed state. According to Khanna and Greeson (2013), simply moving the body stimulates the breath and is believed by those following yogic principles to raise prana, or “life force,” leading to a positive alteration in mood. In particular, Sudarshan Kriya (SK), a breathing practice taught by The Art of Living Foundation, significantly increases alpha activity in the brain, which signifies calmness. One study examined the effects of SK on depressive symptoms in 60 alcohol-dependent men. After a week of a standard detoxification program at a mental health center in Bangalore, India, participants were randomly assigned to either two weeks of SK or a standard alcoholism treatment control.
At the conclusion of three weeks, scores on a standard depression inventory dropped 75% in the SK group, as compared with 60% in the standard treatment group. Levels of two stress hormones, cortisol, and corticotropin, also dropped in the SK group but not in the control group. The authors suggest that SK might be a beneficial treatment for the depression common in the early stages of recovery from alcoholism.
The rapid, cyclical breathing in SK creates a calm, relaxed state of mind. This in turn allows an individual to fall naturally into a meditative state, essentially producing the same dopaminergic effect as a drug. According to Durrant et al. (2009), “Drugs can generate strong positive emotional experiences because of their action on natural reward systems in the brain, essentially signaling that they are the kind of stimuli that the organism should be paying attention to.” Findings suggest that meditation induced by breathing acts on these same brain reward centers and produces antidepressant-like effects that improve emotional states.
Interest in meditation practices as clinical interventions has increased tremendously in recent years. Science shows that mindfulness meditation, a technique based on Buddhist meditation practices that focuses the mind on the present moment, is associated with multiple measures of well-being. These include reductions in depressive symptoms and perceptions of stress and pain, as well as improved immune function. Mindfulness meditation practitioners also show an enhanced ability to regulate cognitive and emotional behavior.
In lay terms, consistent meditation installs a “pause button” in the brain enabling one to respond rather than react. Heightened awareness reduces impulsivity, an empirically validated antecedent to substance abuse. For a trigger-happy alcoholic or addict, meditation is literally a lifesaver.
“It’s an inside job” is a common cliche heard in recovery meetings. In other words, it’s not the type of mission that requires a hitman but one that demands introspection and inquiry. In Overcoming Addictions, mind-body medicine expert Deepak Chopra, M.D. notes, “All addictions have one thing in common: their power depends on something external, something out there in the world, something extrinsic to the individual self. Meditating is the opposite, the antithesis, of addictive behavior.” As many New Age prophets have touted, joy is an internal experience from which happiness springs. Thus, the cup runs over, allowing one to share this sense of joy with others.
That emphasis on giving to receive also comes into play in discussing our final recovery tool: community service. Most alcohol and addiction treatment programs based on the 12-step method stress the importance of service work. A daily recovery program might include:
- group service projects
- volunteering at a local homeless shelter
- sharing on a panel for those incarcerated for drug/alcohol-related offenses
- speaking to another struggling addict on the phone (i.e., 12-step calls)
Research shows that service-oriented work is a highly useful intervention and, according to one study, “The intrinsic and extrinsic gratifications of the work may generate feelings of self-worth, self-efficacy, happiness, and satisfaction-aspects of positive mental health.”
To further emphasize this point, Witbrodt and Kaskutas (2005) write, “Key predictors of abstinence varied by follow-up and dependence disorder, except for doing service in AA and/or Narcotics Anonymous, which was the only specific 12-step activity that was the best predictor of abstinence in all three categories one year following treatment. Thus, ‘giving back’ to one’s peer community through service work, an important 12-step belief, seems to be universally valuable later in recovery” (pp. 685-86).
Now, I’m no AA Big Book evangelist, but there is one line in the infamous 12 Steps and 12 Traditions that’s simple science to any secular: “And then he discovers that by the divine paradox of this kind of giving he has found his own reward, whether his brother has yet received anything or not.” By helping you, I help me, and together, WE recover. That’s a whole bunch of happiness to go around for everyone!