A Perfect Solution
Why does a person use mood-altering substances? The answer is basic and simple. Because it is fun and it often makes a person feel good. It is an extremely fast and effective way to feel either more relaxed, more euphoric, or simply to relieve any pain or discomfort. It seemingly appears to be a perfect solution to the problems of life, at least initially.
Much has been written on the science of addiction, genetics, and neurobiological brain processes that contribute to the addictive process. However, neurobiology and genetics alone do not fully explain the addictive process. A person born with the genetic predisposition to addiction does not necessarily become an addict. Similarly, a person free of a genetic predisposition is not immune to the addictive process. Everyone has the potential to become addicted.
So what else is it that influences the addictive process? Behavior, life experiences, and how the person has developed certain levels of functioning areas in their life play a critical role.
Stumbling Into Addiction
It may be surprising to learn that people often unknowingly stumble into the addictive process. They do this through learned and repetitive behaviors that occur developmentally over time with family, friends, and general life experiences. Although it is true that some people may become addicted to a substance right from the very beginning due to their genetic make-up, for others it often takes years and sometimes decades before a person actually falls victim to the addictive process. Research has demonstrated that behaviors, particularly repetitive behaviors over time, can activate dormant genes. This may explain why certain people who start off as recreational or social users become full-blown addicts in later years. Often, people simply train themselves into becoming addicted.
The difference in the length of time it takes a person to become addicted, genetics notwithstanding, is directly related to how effectively that person has learned to adapt to the surrounding environment and how they have developed certain functioning areas of their life. Personal behavior, regardless of genetics and the neurobiology involved, plays a critical role in the addictive process.
An Early Start
One of the interesting facets about substance use is that it appears to start at a relatively early age, typically during adolescence. The National Institute of Health estimates that approximately 85% of all adolescents are experimenting with drugs and alcohol. These statistics have not really changed for the past twenty years. The question for parents today is not whether my child is drinking or drugging, but whether my child is going to weather the storm and escape the addictive cycle.
Why is there such a preoccupation with drug use among the young? One answer involves the pain and pleasure sensors that we all have. Humans are hard-wired to avoid any type of pain and to experience pleasure whenever possible. It is an evolutionary protective mechanism in order for our species to survive. It has also been shown that given a preference, a person tends towards avoiding pain as opposed to seeking out pleasure. However, to complicate matters, research has also demonstrated that when engaging in a pleasurable experience in order to reduce pain, the pleasurable experience on the part of the person tends to be more pleasurable. As a result, the mind and body work together to ensure a balance between the pain and pleasure mechanisms in the brain. Our pain sensors alert us to a potential problem, while our pleasure sensors reduce the pain in order to maintain a focus.
Undeniably, adolescence is an extremely turbulent time. Given even an ideal living situation, an adolescent still has to struggle with a multitude of challenges including hormonal changes, changes in brain development, the struggle with independence, the desire to establish a sexual identity, and all of these contribute to a considerable level of stress. These developmental stressors alone can easily trigger a person’s pain sensors and their threshold of discomfort. Now we add in certain external influences such as divorce, blended families, relocation, poverty, peer group pressure, a lack of education, trauma, and a general need to fit in and now the pain sensors are not only exposed but are conceivably being rubbed raw. This is usually the time that a person begins to experiment with substances. The start of this use is usually not directly associated with the discomfort the person may be experiencing.
Typically the introduction of drug and alcohol use is innocent by itself. It usually starts with curiosity or what the person has been exposed to via the peer group or family. A person begins to experiment with something that alters the mood and in many instances, at least in the beginning, is an extremely effective way to alter one’s state. However, the result of this innocent curiosity renders an immediate effect. The adolescent feels good and in some instances euphoric. The person discovers an effective avenue of relief and a particularly effective solution to any type of discomfort.
Although some would assert that their first experience with drugs and alcohol was not necessarily a pleasant one, the pleasure a person derived from fitting in or being a part of a peer group was undeniable. In either case, the person found a way to feel good. The person found an effective coping strategy that was immediate and effective.
A Downward Spiral
However, “feeling good” this way has certain inherent risks. As a result of the euphoric effects of mood-altering substances, there is the potential for a downward spiral. It is what the “feel good” does to a person that can create problems. Due to the euphoric effects brought on by a substance, there can be a tendency to depend on the substance or the behavior as a means of relief or a coping strategy. Often, a person begins to neglect the natural support systems around them in favor of the instantaneous effects of a substance. As a result, important functional areas of a person can begin to deteriorate. What was once a source of support such as family, friends, hobbies, career, health, are now neglected in favor of “getting high.”
Level of Functioning and Well-Being
The level of functioning areas refers to key specific developmental areas of a person’s life. These include the following areas: intrapersonal, interpersonal, social, familial, vocational, physical, and spiritual. It is believed that how a person functions in these specific areas plays a major role in how effectively a person maintains a healthy and productive lifestyle regardless of genetic make-up. It is also believed that these particular areas play an instrumental role in both the addictive and the recovery processes.
From the perspective of the addictive process, most of the stress that is produced emanates from one or more of these areas. As a person begins to negotiate the developmental life cycle, each of these areas presents new and evolving challenges. Whether it is transitioning from childhood to adolescence, leaving home to attend college, getting married or divorced, relocation, or simply raising children, there is always going to be a challenge, and the subsequent stress of that challenge is always confronting the person. This is not to say that these challenges are bad. Often, these challenges are what make a person grow and feel a sense of self-worth. However, these challenges also bring a degree of stress. As a result of these challenges, a person is subject to the potential dysregulation in the neurochemistry of the brain. The resultant symptoms that may occur, which may even be “normal feelings”, i.e., feeling sad and angry due to the loss of a job, can trigger a person to seek relief. For many, the use of substances is that viable relief, which can also be the beginning of a learned behavior that results in the addictive process.
From the standpoint of the recovery process, the level of functioning areas can be viewed as new potential sources of dopamine. The development of skills and the ultimate successful functioning of a person in any of these areas can bring about a sense of competence and self-esteem. Although it is important to help a person to stop drinking and drugging, it is equally as important that the person begin to develop, refine, and maintain their skills in the level of functioning areas.
The following level of functioning areas are considered to be important markers as they relate to a person’s ability to adapt successfully to the environment and ultimately to develop a strong sense of self which is particularly important in developing healthy coping skills. The belief is that the stronger the skills a person has in these areas, the stronger their recovery is going to be. It is important to note, however, that there is no set way to function in these areas. The key question is whether the person has developed the necessary skills to deal with the stressors in these areas. It is also important to determine whether these skill sets have been productive coping skills. Furthermore, has the person developed the necessary skills in these areas to not only have an avenue of relief and support but to have these areas be a source of pleasure and happiness?
A person’s level of functioning areas can be viewed as follows:
This refers to how a person views both their sense of self and the world. It is a person’s general belief system about how they need to function in the environment at hand. How a person views their self can have a major influence on the behaviors a person adopts and uses to adapt to their perceived environment. Does the person see themselves as an “addict” who is likely going to relapse? Or, do they see themselves as a person who is recovering from a “disease,” a biological illness, ready to get back into life? Is a person excited about the prospect of recovery or are they frightened? In all of these cases, the meaning that a person gives to their perception of what is occurring is going to influence their behavior and their behavior is going to influence their perception. perception plays a significant role in the approach to life. So too for the person suffering from an addiction, it is important for that person to understand their personal belief systems and how those beliefs have been an asset and a detriment in their life.
Questions to Ask:
- How do I feel about myself?
- How well do I know and understand myself?
- What characteristics do I like or dislike about myself?
- What kind of language do I use in my self-talk and inner monologue?
- How do I handle successes and challenges?
Intrapersonal Principles to Live By:
- Intrapersonal intelligence is the ability to identify, understand, access and express inner feelings and emotions.
- The more self-confidence one has, the easier it is to meet people and to form healthy relationships.
- Understanding one’s self leads to understanding others, which helps to resolve conflicts constructively.
- Having high intrapersonal skills provides tools to adjust to new situations and change more quickly and with less stress.
- Live life with honesty and integrity – dishonest and negative actions result in guilt and shame.
- Develop patience and impulse control – take time with decisions rather than use knee-jerk reactions.
- A strong sense of self enables one to be more resilient against negative behavior that is aimed at oneself.
- Increasing self-esteem enables one to lead with one’s own values rather than follow the values of others.
- Expressing internal self through externals – dress, groom, and act in ways that reflect your higher self.
- High intrapersonal skills are connected to academic, career and life success.
10 Ways to Develop Intrapersonal Skills
- Set aside quiet time alone to meditate and to reflect upon one’s inner self.
- Identify and write down thoughts throughout the day and begin to turn negative thoughts around to positive ones.
- Start a gratitude journal by writing down five things for which you are grateful every day.
- Ask someone close to you to do an inventory of your positive aspects and what you can improve upon.
- Make a list of your values – evaluate if your values and behavior changes when around other people.
- Write your life story in the third person describing how that character (i.e., you) overcame challenges.
- Study a biography of a great person whom you aspire to emulate.
- Examine your wardrobe by evaluating what items will help you feel good about yourself and gain self-respect.
- List impulses that you have during the day and what you did instead of acting on them.
- Record your daily successes and positive behaviors, however big or small.
This refers to how a person interacts and negotiates with others in a relationship system. It refers to the ability to recognize the uniqueness of others as well as the varying needs of others and that the needs of others may conflict with own. Another important facet of this area is the ability of a person to recognize the interdependence that exists in a relationship. Interdependence refers to the ability to feel comfortable in being dependent on someone else, yet, at the same time, knowing they have the capacity to be independent.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- How well do I deal with others?
- How do I resolve conflict?
- What are my behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs towards others who are similar/different from me?
- How well do I work as a team player? As a leader? As a follower?
- How do I build trust and respect from my friends, families, bosses and co-workers?
Interpersonal Principles to Live By
- Set your own high standards for what is healthy and positive behavior – do not just follow the crowd.
- Evaluate people based on their actions rather than projecting your own biases and prejudices onto them.
- Do not be afraid of authority figures – respect them as needed but know that you have your own power that can never be taken away.
- Be a good team player – know when to take leadership and when to follow orders.
- Deal with a conflict head-on – be honest with yourself and the conflict so that it does not become a greater problem.
- Take responsibility for what you did to others in the past and change what you can in the present.
- Share and express your feelings with others – let people into your world.
10 Ways to Improve Interpersonal Skills:
- Find three people you have not met and ask them questions about themselves.
- Make or buy a gift that shows appreciation for someone who has helped you.
- Share with someone with whom you feel safe something about which you are embarrassed.
- List negative behaviors of someone you dislike and then evaluate how you have similar behaviors.
- Find one positive thing about the people around you and let them hear it.
- Keep track of the number of times you smile in a day and then increase that amount the next day.
- Offer to do something nice for somebody without expecting anything in return.
- Spend the day talking to people without saying any negative statements or voicing any complaints.
- Take 10 minutes every day to set aside time to talk to a loved one about issues.
- Actively listen by not responding verbally to someone’s comments or advice and consider what they say.
This refers to the social life and established social network that the person uses for support, recreation, and general relaxation. The social network can include friends, organized groups or clubs, hobbies, recreational activities, and other various outlets used to promote support and relaxation. Social supports in a person’s life are extremely important since they play a crucial role in reducing stress as well as building healthy relationships with others.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What healthy outlets do I have to be social and connect with others?
- How comfortable am I when I meet new people?
- What kind of activities do I like to do?
- How can I make sober friends?
- What are ways that I can attract positive people in my life?
Principles to live by when making and keeping friends:
- The more positive you become the more you will attract positive people.
- Do not get too comfortable and fall back on friends who are a bad influence.
- There is someone for everyone – people will like you despite your flaws.
- When you isolate yourself you are building your own prison.
- Do not be afraid of rejection – the more you try the higher the odds are of acceptance.
- Share of yourself – open up to others about who you are and do not be afraid to be vulnerable.
- Focus on the people who like you – not everyone is going to like you and that is fine.
- Do not let negative self-thoughts exist in your mind; when they appear, focus on positive thoughts.
- Face to face interaction is always best – if you meet or communicate online meet up in person.
- Sincerity goes a long way – people can tell if you are not honest or appropriate in your motives.
- Have a positive outlook on people – nobody is perfect and everyone just wants acceptance.
- Do not settle for a social network that is anything less than one that will move you forward in life.
- Remember that the person you meet is feeling just as awkward and unsure of themselves as you are.
- Be open to people different than you- you always have at least one thing in common with someone.
- Take initiative – challenge yourself and make the first step in initiating a friendship.
- Do not get discouraged – attracting new, positive people takes time.
10 Ways to Build a Positive, Healthy Social Life:
- Start with someone you know through work, school, church, support group or a friend of a friend.
- Explore a hobby about which you are passionate about and join a club or take a class related to it.
- Follow the news and pop culture so that you have something about which to talk.
- Volunteer with a cause in which you believe and actively participate in the organization.
- Make a list of values and characteristics you want to see in yourself and in the people around you.
- Plan how you will start a conversation at a social gathering and try it out on someone new.
- Make a habit out of collecting people’s contact information so you may follow up with them later.
- Plan to do an activity or attend an event you enjoy and invite others to join you.
- Attend a social networking event in a field that you are or would like to be in.
- Ask someone you respect to tell you what you can improve on when meeting new people.
Family refers to both the immediate and extended family and/or kinship system with whom a person has been intimately and emotionally involved over the years. The “family” are those people, not necessarily blood related, who still continue to play a role in providing support, sustenance, and are likely to have an on-going involvement in the life of a person.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What does family mean to me?
- What unresolved issues do I have with my family?
- How can I improve my relationships with my family?
- What kind of family do I want to have?
- How can I become a positive and inspiring family member?
- In what ways can I better communicate with my family better?
Principles to live by when dealing with and understanding your family
- Have compassion for your parents – parenting is the hardest and most demanding task in the world.
- Learn to forgive – if a family member treated you poorly or hurt you, chances are the same thing was done to them when they were growing up.
- Discover and evaluate your boundaries as an individual and as a family member.
- Family relationships and conflicts can reflect to you on what you need to work to improve yourself.
- Be responsible for yourself – take responsibility for the things you can and cannot change about you and your family.
- Unspoken family rules oftentimes speak louder than spoken rules.
- Family roles and behaviors shifts after significant crises and events.
- The more you understand your family, the more you understand yourself.
- Take the path of least resistance – family power struggles can be more trouble than they are worth.
- Birth order plays a major part in your role in your family and your personal life.
10 Ways to Improve Your Family Life:
- Write down what you consider as your family, blood-related or not, and evaluate each relationship.
- Spend an hour or more every week or month with family members with whom you do, and do not, get along.
- Build a family tree – ask your parents and relatives about your family history.
- Research your cultural background and list the values that you and your family have adopted from this.
- Interview a family member about their life history and write a short biographical story about them.
- Make a list of values and characteristics that you want to have in forming your own family.
- Write down your unresolved family issues and share it with a therapist or a loved one.
- Enroll in family or couples counseling or take a course in family communication.
- Make a list of values and beliefs you have adopted from your family and evaluate if they are right for you.
- Identify family taboo topics and think of ways to approach these topics in a non-threatening way.
This refers to how a person has progressed through their life as it relates to their academic, career, and professional development. This is important because many people spend the majority of their time in life on the job. A good question for someone to ask oneself is whether or not they are satisfied and fulfilled with what they are doing. Because life is often very precarious and presents conflicting demands, it is always important to evaluate whether one is where one wants to be.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What are my short and long-term professional goals?
- How can I work towards advancement in my field?
- How do I present myself in the job force?
- What are ways I can show leadership and initiative in my job?
- How can I build upon and strengthen my skills for my job or career field?
- How well do I get along with my supervisors, colleagues, co-workers, and employees?
Principles to live by when building your professional skills
- Everyone was born with a purpose in life – find ways to use your purpose in your career.
- Dress appropriately for the job, or one notch higher than what is expected.
- Think about your job as being a way to give back to humanity.
- No job is beneath you – there is always something to learn from every job that helps you in the future.
- Identify your passion and find ways to express that passion in your job.
- Keep up with the competition – meet the minimum requirements for your field and go beyond them.
- Take leadership and initiative in your job – set a higher standard for your company.
- Leave the office gossip behind – form strong relationships with co-workers and work as a team.
- Take measures for self-care – you are more productive and positive at work if you are not burnt out.
- Take advantage of job trainings and workshops – continually improve your job skills.
- Know and understand what you value in life and build your job around those values.
- Challenge yourself – get feedback from your boss and peers about how to push your self further.
10 ways to develop professional skills:
- Write down the activities you enjoy and find ways to incorporate these into your field of work.
- Make an inventory of the skills/strengths you have in your field and which other leaders in your field also have.
- Enroll in school or a course that will move you toward your professional goals.
- List your professional goals and share it with anyone and everyone around you.
- Evaluate and identify any issues with authority and develop address them.
- Examine what is in your closet and begin to develop a professional or work-appropriate wardrobe.
- Ask your friends and family at what you are good and on what you need to improve for the workforce.
- Take a course or read a book on how to develop leadership skills.
- Read the biography of a leader in your field and take notes on how they got where they are.
- Write an obituary of what you achieved in your life, then work backward on how to reach those goals.
Health and Physiology
This refers to the health and physical conditioning of a person. It also refers to whether or not a person has reached their goal regarding their health and physical conditioning. Even people with chronic illness and conditions have the ability to improve. It has been well documented that eating properly and doing consistent exercise not only makes us healthier, it also strengthens the immune system. The body has often been referred to as the temple of our mind. If our body is not fit, our mind is not going to reach its highest potential.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What is the overall state of my body?
- How much exercise do I do on a daily/weekly basis?
- What am I doing to nourish the body?
- How can I increase my energy through natural, beneficial ways?
- How can I motivate myself to take great care of my health?
Principles to live by for developing health and physical skills
- Small steps towards a healthier lifestyle are better than a complete overhaul of your current lifestyle.
- Restlessness and boredom may be your body’s way of telling you to get up, stretch or exercise.
- Annual physical examinations by a doctor must be an integral part of any health program, especially since they can help identify latent problem areas.
- Getting off drugs will help reveal physical, sleep and/or eating issues that were previously covered up.
- Everything in moderation – cross-addictions can make you go overboard on exercise or diet plans.
- Regular sleep is important – wind down by the end of the day, go to bed early and wake up early.
- For illnesses and physical issues, explore natural remedies and alternative therapies when possible.
- Sugar cravings can become strong when detoxing from drugs – choose natural sugars from fruit and vegetables as much as possible.
- Think of your body like a vehicle that needs to be cleaned regularly and maintained daily for maximum potential.
- Staying physically active helps maintain and build a more positive self-image and world outlook.
- Pain, discomfort, and ailments are temporary and will pass like everything else.
- Cut down on cigarettes and stop smoking through cessation methods
- Treat your body to massages, chiropractor, and other alternative therapies.
- Vary your physical exercise and activities to prevent stale health regimens.
- Give your body time to adjust to new health activities – feeling physically better comes over time.
10 Ways to a Healthy Lifestyle:
- Start your morning with stretching and light exercise for 20 minutes while listening to energizing music.
- Develop a daily/weekly schedule of all activities involving movement and/or exercise.
- Explore and use your insurance benefits or get on to a health care insurance plan for prevention.
- Identify and approach someone reliable to be your exercise buddy or health monitor.
- Enroll in a cooking class focused on making simple healthy meals.
- Join a gym, fitness class and/or sports team in your neighborhood.
- Take short evening walks after dinner.
- Plan and shop for meals and healthy snacks for the week.
- Sign up with a nutritionist to evaluate your current health habits and to develop a new program.
- Keep a food journal to find out what you are putting into your body on a daily basis.
This refers to a sense of purpose and meaning in one’s life. It is the ability of a person to bring meaning to their life experiences and to make sense of one’s e experiences and how they can contribute to others.
Questions to Ask Yourself:
- What is your sense of a higher power?
- What are your spiritual values and beliefs?
- How do you connect to nature? How do you connect to others? To the universe?
- To whom or what do you turn when you are facing a challenge?
- How much faith or trust do you have in what life has in for your future?
- What are ways to build upon or strengthen your spiritual values, beliefs, and faith?
Spiritual Principles to Live By
- Trust in what the universe has for your future – you are infinite potential and creativity.
- Human beings all share the same core essence – treat others as you would like to be treated.
- There are no mistakes or coincidences – you are where you are at for a reason and purpose.
- Observe your choices and actions – there are causes and effects to all your actions.
- Avoid religious debates and arguments – instead discuss and identify common spiritual principles and values.
- Every moment is an opportunity to begin with a fresh new perspective on life.
- Give up your sense of control – it is illusory anyway and, instead, trust the universe to provide for the future. Surrender.
- Plant the seed of intention and water it – ask for help on what you want from life and it will blossom.
- Nothing external will ever fill what is perceived to be lacking within – go internally to discover what is full and perfect as it is.
- Discover your true Self – one purpose of life is to find out who and what you are and what you are not.
- Understand Spirit/God/Universe with direct experience and choose your own spiritual path.
10 Ways to Improve Your Spiritual Life:
- Spend a few minutes each day sitting alone in silence.
- Volunteer for a social service agency and give back to your community.
- Take a walk in nature and observe the flowers, trees, and grass with childlike wonder.
- Make a list of all the positive things that have happened in your life and see them as miracles.
- Visit churches, temples and religious/spiritual groups and find the right one that speaks to your heart.
- Collect peaceful, calm, spiritual songs and put them on a playlist or CD to listen to every night.
- Make a sacred space in your room that is reserved just for yourself and includes items that symbolize what you value in your life.
- Interview those close to you and those you respect about their spiritual values and practices.
- Read a spiritual book or gather spiritual writings that help inspire you.
- Develop a personal ritual to dispose of past hurts and wrongs and let go of the past
New Sources of Dopamine
It is important to remember that individuals in the early part of recovery are going to experience a great deal of pain and discomfort. However, what has been emphasized repeatedly herein, this pain and discomfort may not be related as much to the physiological dependence and subsequent withdrawal to a substance as to the general lack of dopamine in the neurobiological system.
Research has demonstrated that the use of substances depletes, and even in certain cases extinguishes, the natural dopamine supply of a person. Studies have shown that dopamine receptors can remain depleted for as much as two years for those addicted to “crack” cocaine and methamphetamines. Although other studies have suggested that the increased functioning of dopamine receptors can be brought back online in the brain much quicker via behavioral stimulation and change, a sense of well-being may still take time to develop. The challenge is for the person to develop new sources of dopamine.
The Paradox of Recovery: the Pain Source is the Pleasure Source
One of the interesting paradoxes in the recovery process is that the new source of dopamine may very well come from the old sources of pain and discomfort, namely our relationship systems in the core level of functioning areas. As previously mentioned, pain and discomfort comes from the aforementioned life experiences which include the intrapersonal, interpersonal, family, social, professional, as well as our physical and spiritual conditioning. These are the same areas that also have the potential to provide a person with an unlimited source of well-being and pleasure. The development of these areas has the potential to be the new dopamine source.
The problem is these areas of a person’s life have been seriously neglected because of the addictive behaviors, or in the case of people who have been addicted since their early teens, these areas have never really been developed at all. However, it is in these very areas of a person’s life that has the unlimited potential to increase self-esteem, provide a natural network of support, and to provide a person with a real sense of belonging, nurturing, and love. Although a person newly into recovery has a mountain of work ahead of them, they also have an untapped source of pleasurable fulfillment.
As a person once said when he came into treatment,
“I came into treatment because my life was miserable and unmanageable. Now that I am clean and sober, I realize that my life is even more miserable than I thought but I now know it can be more manageable. I am in a black tunnel, not a black hole. The miracle is that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I know what I need to work in order to get better.”