Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Path from Craving to Freedom

When we crave, the primitive motivational core of the brain screams "Go!" We find ourselves drawn back to something we promised ourselves we would avoid.

A Fool's Dilemma: 

In the throes of addiction, there are only two apparent ways out of the craving state. One is to resist. We try to wrench ourselves out of "Go!" and back into "Stop!" mode. The problem is, all of our "Stop!" efforts don't eclipse the "Go!" signal in the brain. An inner arms race of sorts is launched. Fighting a craving does not resolve it, and a we keep bouncing like a pinball back into the craving state we were trying to escape.

We sometimes get so tired of fighting that the other way out of our craving state not only sounds more and more appealing but starts to make more and more sense. We succumb to temptation. We give in and "Go!" We proceed from Craving and on to Indulging & Gratification, and then inevitably on to Satiation & Guilt.

After indulging, it may seem like we're free. Guilt and satiation both keep the craving monster at bay--for a time. However, indulging is just as sure a route back to craving, even if it is more roundabout than fighting was. The "Go!" state, when it returns, is stronger than ever, reinforced in the brain by the gratification of our latest indulgence.

The Best Way Out:

Anna Childress, a researcher the University of Pennsylvania, is my heroine in the field of addiction. She has made a career of studying the brain's "Go!" signal and developing anti-craving tools and strategies.

The coolest thing Childress came up with was a creative way to help addicts pave a third path out of the craving state. She showed cocaine addicts videos of someone using cocaine, which triggered in them a craving state. Then, instead of leaving them to their usual options--fighting or succumbing--she guided them to practice a state of mastery by engaging in techniques such as calming their breathing and envisioning a sober future. They repeated this process over and over again, practicing effective coping skills while in a state of craving. Later, when they faced triggers in the real world, their brain had plenty of practice taking this third exit.

"Cue Exposure and Coping Skills Training" has been utilized and embellished by many others since Childress came up with it, and has been found to be extremely effective in reducing addicts vulnerability to relapse. The sequence of going from craving to mastery starts to become almost as automatic as relapse once was.

The coolest part is that this third path doesn't just loop back to the trap of craving. The state of mastery enables an addict to move on with their day and eventually, when practiced regularly, to move on with their life. Not only can we get better at it over time, it becomes more rewarding. Freedom is pleasurable in its own way, so the brain starts to become more enticed by the route of mastery.

Commit to the Process: 

Amidst a devastating fire, hundreds of children safely exit the school building in an orderly manner. This feat is possible--and in fact almost automatic--because they practiced doing the same thing over and over during fire drills.

We can develop the ability to respond with the same alacrity to potentially devastating cravings, but we need the same kind of practice and repetition.

How To Practice Cue Mastery:

Commit now to beat your own path from craving to freedom by practicing Cue/Mastery twice a day over the next three weeks and then once a day for three weeks after that. You're building a neurological bridge that will enable your brain to go from craving to mastery in the heat of even the most tempting moments.

Here's how your twice-daily practice will go:

1. Bring to mind a trigger situation. Imagine it vividly. 

2. Once you feel the pull, take your heart rate for 15 seconds. 

3. Practice these mastery inducers/craving neutralizers: 

  • take eight nice, slow, full breaths. Keep count by moving your thumb from one finger to another at the end of each exhale...
  • then, dwell for a few moments on how much a future of freedom will mean to you...
  • then, imagine doing something enjoyable or meaningful that's incompatible with relapse...

4. Take your heart rate again for 15 seconds. 

Keep a record of your practice. Think of it as your twice-a-day dose of antibiotic: take one first thing after waking up and again later right before going to bed.

I've not only seen the result of the research by Dr. Childress and others, I've seen the fruits of this technique in the lives of my clients. I'm confident that it will be well worth your while.

Let me know how it goes!

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