Friday, December 14, 2012

See Through Your Cravings

The craving state is the linchpin of addiction. The draw of sexual acting out spikes and the reasons to avoid it fade. The very essence of the craving state leaves us vulnerable because we no longer have our wits about us; our usual capacity to think and solve problems is compromised.

Relapse is one sure way out of the craving state. We give in to the urge and indulge ourselves. Then reality very quickly snaps back into view. Regret and shame flood in. 

Resistance of urges, on the other hand, seems to only leave the craving state intact. The draw remains and continues to pull at us. I've often heard from clients that the didn't act on impulse, but rather felt worn down by craving and eventually gave in because they wanted out of the torture, they just couldn't take anymore the harassment--and eventually the torture--of the temptations that pounded away at their consciousness.

Rather than fighting or giving in to urges, try working with the craving state differently. Try this Lifespan Integration booster technique and see if it helps:

1. Identify what you feel physiologically and where you feel it in your body when you crave. You can certainly do this on the fly when you are actively craving. However, it works best to do a little preparation by focusing on what craving feels like to you when you're not feeling it spontaneously. Attend to the bodily sensations in a curious way. Notice the details: are the feelings diffuse or localized? What happens to the sensations as you attend to them over time?

2. As you stay focused on those feelings in your body, let go of the current situation or craving. Stay with the feelings in your body, but let your mind float back in time--maybe even way back. Notice when else you've felt those feelings in your body. What memories go with those bodily sensations? Quite often what arises for my clients is a past experience that played a formative role in their addiction. I call this a "hook experience."

These hook experiences can be divided into two types: those which trigger "euphoric recall" and those which trigger "deliverance recall." To illustrate euphoric recall: one client remembered finding a discarded pornographic magazine lying in field as he walked home from school and being very intrigued. As he viewed the magazine, curiosity gave way to euphoria. It was like a whole new exciting aspect of life was opening up to him. Deliverance recall is different but just as powerful. Another client recalled finally leaving on a family vacation that he'd been eagerly anticipating, only to discover that his parents fought the entire drive to the lake just as they did at home. When they arrived at the condo he locked himself in the bathroom and collapsed to the floor in despair. After laying there for minute, he started touching his genitals and felt his disappointment about his family situation fade as he began to lose himself in the pleasure of sexual stimulation.

3. Design a brief message you might give a young person you care about who was right now in the very situation you found yourself at the time of the hook experience. For instance, you might say: "That might seem great because it feels so good, but you'll want to be careful in how much you pursue it. You don't want it to take over your life. If you let your fascination with sex get out of balance it can interfere with your focus on other good goals and get in the way of relationships. It can even hook you on fake fantasy sex and interfere with fully enjoying sex with your real future partner." Or perhaps, "This may seem now like the best way to escape bad feelings, but I've learned over time that it's better to face feelings and deal with problems head on."

4. Create a timeline by identifying 8-10 events that have happened since that hook experience. These will provide you with some chronological handles for your younger, more vulnerable self to hold onto as he or she climbs out of the outdated mindset and into present day reality.

Some clients find it odd or hokey, like it's a figment of pop psychology, to think about their craving state as coming from a younger self. That is the way we frame it to help the right brain grasp what we're doing as we go through the process of this exercise, but it can be explained differently to the left brain: We've long known that consciousness is not the continuous flow of one stream, but is actually made up of frequently shifting "ego state"s that enhance our functioning by taking over to handle the various kinds of situations and experiences we face in everyday life. Most of these ego states are adaptive and we don't give them a second thought. Others come into being as we face extreme situations or experiences, like our hook experiences. These ego states and the thinking and behavior they generate may make sense to some degree at the time they are adapted, but life moves on and evolves and becomes more complex. It's not very adaptive or productive when we unintentionally--and often even unconsciously--shift back into old ego states that are characterized by overly simplified perspectives (such as "Sex is the most important thing in life!") and behavioral imperatives (such as "Don't ever pass up the opportunity for sexual excitement.")

5. Practice the booster technique quite a few times when you're not in a craving state to prepare yourself to use it in the heat of the moment. This is best done with the help of a therapist who has been trained in the therapy technique called Lifespan Integration. Take yourself back to the hook experience by recalling an incident during which sex was euphoric or offered deliverance from distress. Mentally put yourself there, back in time, in that experience. Notice what you feel in your body and exactly where you feel those sensations. Now, bring your present-day, adult self into that scene. Imagine taking your younger self away from where he or she was and to a safe place like a peaceful beach or a mountain grove. In a compassionate way, deliver the message you've designed. Tell your younger self that he (or she) is a good person and you know he's not trying to mess up his life, but you have a different perspective, adopted over time and with maturity, that you want to share with him. Then tell him gently but firmly that time has moved on and that hook experience IS OVER, and IS NOT HAPPENING ANYMORE. Prove this to him by showing him pictures of the scenes on your timeline. Show him all 8 or 10 scenes in chronological order. Then imagine bringing him into your home as it is now. Tell him he lives here now with you, and he's not back there anymore going through that hook experience. Notice what he wants to do here and now if he's no longer stuck back then and there. Often clients see their younger self truly enjoying being a kid again without the worries he took on at such a young age. Or they see their younger self enjoying genuine childlike spontaneous pursuits rather than getting hooked on porn or masturbation at such a young age. Their is a recovery, retrieval, or return to developmental needs and pursuits that were short-circuited by too early or too intense sexualization.

These repetitions are the process of Lifespan Integration therapy and, as I said, they are best done with the aid of a therapist trained to conduct this technique. However, some of the best therapy can occur outside formal sessions in the heat of the craving moment. That's why I call this next step a booster technique:

6. When you find you're suffering cravings, do a simplified version of step 5 above. Feel what's going on in your body. See if it matches what you felt back in the hook experience you identified. Perhaps the feelings in the body when you're craving go with a different hook experience or don't link up with a particular hook experience. Either way, sense that it may be your younger self, a less informed and mature part of you, that is experiencing this craving. Bring your present day self into the scene and let that younger self know you're here for him. Offer a message of encouragement, gentle correction of perspective, or reassurance that he'll be okay even if he doesn't pursue sex right now. Then show him a few (perhaps 3-5) of the events from the timeline in chronological order to prove to him that time has passed. Let him know he is in the present, with you here and now and these days you've learned to think better of it when you're tempted to pursue sex in that way.

As always, I respectfully request that you let me know how it goes if you give this technique a try.

Thanks and keep up the great work!

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