The Road to Recovery: Three Essential Steps to Combat Addiction (2/3)

Overcoming addiction is daunting. This article breaks the process down into three critical, practical steps. The plan outlined has enabled many of my therapy clients to conquer addiction and regain control of their lives.

The Road to Recovery: Three Essential Steps to Combat Addiction (2/3)
The Road to Recovery from Addiction

Overcoming addiction is daunting. This article breaks the process down into three critical, practical steps. The plan outlined has enabled many of my therapy clients to conquer addiction and regain control of their lives.

This is Part 2 of three articles written to support your journey out of addiction. For Part 1, start here.

For the the final instalment (3/3), read HERE.

Audio version here:

Does a troubling habit have you in its grip, and do you need some help to regain control?

If so, you’ll know willpower alone isn’t enough to escape the allure of addiction’s intoxicating offer.

Any activity that promises swift relief from emotional distress has the power to override common sense and become addictive.

Why? Because impulsive habits represent an antidote to something having gone awry in life.

They promise the fast removal, solution or distraction from something troubling. These are destructive behaviours that tart themselves up as discreet therapy.

It’s just this therapist never had your best interests at heart. So, it’s time to take stock and move on.

Discipline weighs ounces. Regret weighs tonnes.

More often than not, escape from addiction and relapse go hand-in-hand (we’ll cover relapse prevention in the third article). Whatever your peccadillo — failed attempts at quitting go something like this:

Post-compulsive habit, you experience a sharp sense of guilt and regret. The habit’s actual costs — time, money, risks and well-being — crash into focus with a flicker of fear or a moment of numbness.

  • What am I doing with my life?
  • What will happen if I don’t change my ways?
  • What if I can’t keep hiding this?
  • I don’t want this anymore!

Desperate to unhook, you muster your resolve, hopeful and determined to make the break. Willpower cranked to 11, and this time it’s different.

‘There’s no way this is going to happen again. It can’t. I won’t let it!’

Getting organised, you devise a plan for what you’ll do instead of the thing. Initially, you’re persistent about staying busy, focused and mindful; you’ll do what it takes to avoid repeatedly falling into traps of the past. And with the wind in your sails, progress appears possible.

But soon, you encounter choppy waters. You may arrive at a particular time of day, or something might knock you off course.

A specific person, place, or feeling disrupts your progress, and a familiar sensation takes hold. And now you want that thing — to have it, to do it or go there now. Whatever that next jolt is for you.

Yet you promised you wouldn’t, so you push it away with a pang of disgust. At first, this works, but the desire is insistent and appears to be getting stronger.

You might even feel the potent call in the form of a wanting in your mouth or a light sensation of butterflies in your stomach or tingling in your legs. You can’t go without it — and you need it now.

Attempting to grab hold of yourself, you’re desperate to steady your nerve. Yet you’re white-knuckle riding, and you know it.

It’s now just a case of time. No amount of willpower seems enough because — somewhere within — a devious voice is already at work to justify the surrender. Just this once. One last time.

And so it is. Resigned to fate, you return to your habit. It opens its arms and beckons you in. A rush of expected pleasure awaits. And, of course, you take it — because the feeling resembles care and comfort.

Yet, you know you’ve returned to a state of helplessness. You’ve gorged on a fraught and lonely diet to fill yourself up on an empty experience.

Addiction, in whatever form it takes — is miserable. In its promise to remove, soften or numb your problems, addiction robs you of your ability to gather the confidence and focus required to get back on your feet.

This is the trap of addiction. It’s an abusive partner dragging your expectations down to the point where you’ll accept anything because something is better than nothing.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Withdrawal needn’t be painful and difficult. And nor should it. Because once you lift the veil and realise you’ve been hoodwinked, you won’t want to go back again.

Jay’s Way Out of Porn Addiction

In the first article, we met a young man from London. Then aged 33, Jay stumbled across online porn as a child whose Initial shock and confusion soon turned to intrigue and curiosity.

And so the path down a time-hungry and shame-filled rabbit hole had begun.

After more than a decade of lost focus and control, Jay had reached a point where he knew he needed help to dig himself out and undertake a path to healing. What follows is a broad overview of how we managed his recovery.

To start Jay’s process, we discussed the nature of addiction and how it takes hold.

Breaking Addiction: Essential Steps to Recovery

When the gap-filler … becomes the gap.

We know, from research, that people who feel fulfilled and connected to their lives do not need (or stop needing) to indulge in addictive activities.

In a famous experiment (Rat Park), rats were offered either morphine-laced or ordinary water.

When kept alone in small cages, the rats tended to opt for morphine yet opted to drink ordinary water when housed with other rats and presented with challenges similar to their natural habitats.

When the rats in the natural habitat were isolated in cages without stimulation, they chose morphine-laced water. In contrast, the initially isolated rats stopped opting for morphine when they returned to their natural-style habitats.

In summary, animals do not want drugs when they can meet their instinctive needs for company, stimulation, gratification, challenge, etc.

Similarly, most young people cease drug experimentation or other precarious habits when starting careers and families because they find new ways to experience meaning, purpose and belonging.

An attempt to meet needs

People are much more likely to get caught up in addiction when critical physical and emotional needs remain unmet.

Perhaps because of losing a loved one, a relationship ending, losing work or becoming ill and losing a sense of self.

Alternatively, the dissatisfaction arising from boredom or feeling trapped in difficult circumstances may lead first to depression and then — by way of coping — to addiction. Here, we become vulnerable to the false allures addiction promises.

Jay and I explored this together. In his case, a reliance on internet porn helped to side-step uncomfortable feelings about his lack of confidence and attractiveness to the opposite sex.

His addiction represented a stable relationship and reliable friend, a liaison who wouldn’t reject or abandon him.

Critically, indulging his habit helped him feel competent and in control- emotional needs he had failed to satisfy in other domains of life.

Yet now hooked and paying the price for fool’s gold, his ability to derive authentic emotional pleasure had been severely disrupted.

This understanding of addiction’s deceit represented a wake-up call for Jay to get on the road to recovery.

Yet he knew how enticing the swan song of his addiction was.

The threat of relapse remained a second away. As he described it, his attention could be hijacked in an instant. He could be summoned behind the screen almost without warning to serve addiction’s dysfunctional appetite.

Here, we examined the gateway urging his return to a behaviour that — honestly — he knew failed to serve him.

The Expectation Pathway

All addictive behaviours work through the same pathway in the brain — the expectation pathway.

If you’ve ever tried to stop a compulsive habit, you’ll know initial abstinence is manageable. Yet the craving grows over time, often until you can’t say no.

What happens in the brain is this: There is a structure in the emotional brain called the amygdala, whose job it is to notice when anything unusual is happening and raise the alarm to potential danger.

On this occasion, it notices you still need to have your usual fix. To remedy this, a sequence of chemical events floods your brain, arousing emotional memories of how wonderful it was the last time you did it.

These memories make your craving powerful and often overwhelming instead of the mild physiological discomfort you experienced in the pre-addiction phase.

Because now the expectation of pleasure is running rampant and you naturally succumb to fulfil it.

But such memories are deceptive because, as you know, when you feel deprived of something you want, you exaggerate the joys of it.

So you remember the thrill of sinking into the hit while you forget or minimise the self-loathing and regret that came later.

In other words, you reject reality and surrender to fantasy.

After discussing with Jay how addiction had him trapped and swindled, we constructed a step-by-step plan for him to stop watching porn. The following three steps underpinned the strategy for moving forward.

Step 1 — Knock out the expectations.

Addiction is deceptive. It promises a means to deal with distressing feelings yet works to conceal the inherent distress of being chained to compulsive activity.

Addition promises a form of protection and then becomes the threat itself.

brown hammer on focus photography
Knock our addiction's expectations

To review this more carefully, we had to interrogate what Jay believed his habit did for him and what it actually did.

For Jay, internet porn represented a non-judgemental sanctuary. Primarily, the screen was a place to retreat when he felt lonely, sad, or inadequate.

In addition, his cyber hideout offered a place to celebrate when something went well.

In short, Jay’s habit hub had dialled itself in as the default response for distressing or any other emotionally arousing experience.

Consequently, his brain had built up a vast storehouse of memories urging him to either self-medicate or reward himself.

To combat these deceptive recollections, he had to challenge his positive associations and replace them with reality.

Because, in truth, Jay’s addiction had created a world of shame, remorse and regret.

The allure of easy access to an uninhibited world of emotional arousal left him feeling grubby, humiliated and chained to behaviour that robbed him of pride and emotional stability.

He felt on constant edge. With so many shameful memories, his confidence and the potential for romantic relationships had melted away.

Whether nervously anticipating the next time he’d succumb to a marathon online fantasy or drowning in the aftermath of guilt and helplessness, addiction was robbing him of dignity and well-being.

This stark reality was a turning point for Jay. From here, I guided Jay through several hypnotic sessions to utilise his strengths and focus on reclaiming freedom.

Assisted by deep calm and relaxation, we worked to steer his awareness and recovery towards a new and emboldened understanding of his habit.

Instead of feeling deprived if he couldn’t access porn, the absence of compulsive behaviour opened a pathway back to self-regard and, ultimately, the gift of freedom.

Now, he would stamp the compulsion down with a genuine choice whenever he had an urge. No lost time! No lost confidence! No more walking in his own shadow anymore.

This was promising. Jay was rewiring his emotional relationship with addiction.

I explained to Jay that failing to attend to everyday life's physical and emotional swings and roundabouts would miss a critical component of his chance for recovery.

In other words, we had to figure out practical daily adjustments to fuel this newfound motor for change.

Step 2 — Rewire your lifestyle.

Reflect an rewire to break addiction

As discussed, addiction promises to fill the emptiness.

Whether replacing a problem with comfort or briefly softening the edges of other distress, compulsive habits feel like getting your needs met while preventing you from addressing the genuine needs you have.

Jay had become reclusive over time. His friendship circle had shrunk, and his romantic prospects felt next to none.

Due to his shyness, a successful day at work meant living off-radar and avoiding attention from colleagues or managers.

Yet this was no success. Jay was undernourished, surviving on an emotionally poor diet. He received little attention, lacked community, and didn’t aspire to create much. It was lonely.

Yet nursing a habit he hoped would remove this distress was the very behaviour that kept him trapped.

To address these circumstances, Jay focused on creating modest and practical ways to meet his emotional needs better.

He joined a climbing club and resolved to invite someone from his new circle of friends to his house each week.

He started venturing out more and taking an interest in other people. With active efforts towards modest expansion, it would only be a matter of time before his romantic prospects improved.

Step 3 — Anticipate risk situations.

By now, Jay was on a good path. He had a candid overview of addiction’s deception, was replacing its promises with simple steps to feel connected to life and — critically — had transitioned from feeling deprived to feeling a clear purpose and taking bold steps towards social rehabilitation.

Yet, always, addiction is clever, malevolent and consistently game for an argument. It would take some time for Jay to rewire his brain properly. Until then, he would need to remain vigilant.

Next to porn as a numbing antidote to social shyness, work stress was a consistent trigger for indulging his habit.

I asked him to note all the people, places and things that might trigger temptation.

For instance, he might discuss porn with someone in passing or capitulate when his surroundings were messy and chaotic — little careless dominoes to set off a trail and nudge his attention back to the screen.

Identifying the various satellite triggers in Jay’s emotional orbit enabled us to construct practical measures to anticipate risks and respond with well-prepared off-ramps before a cascade of behaviour could evolve.

Here I utilised hypnotic induction with Jay to rehearse constructive behaviour for when these moments might occur.

Knowing your patterns

Dismantling the emotional patterns driving your behaviour is essential to overcoming addiction.

All kinds of stimuli — people, places and things — can act as triggers and send you hurtling back to habits you’d roundly condemned only a short time before.

person holding white and blue plastic blocks
Patterns of addictive behaviour.

Logic won’t cure compulsive habits because addiction snatches away your rational mind at the moment of hijack.

To instigate behavioural change, you need a robust and conscious emotional transition, risk-response strategies, and practical steps towards a life of better attending to emotional needs.

Plotting the path to sustainable recovery requires courage, honesty and determination on the client's part, plus a combination of personalised and well-formulated interventions from the support provider.

It’s a craft to fit these pieces together, yet recovery can certainly be achieved.

I observed Jay transition from a timid and cautious young man to a receptive and curious adult throughout our work. He was moving beyond a habit that had kept him bound to chains of inadequacy.

Now, with broader shoulders and expanding horizons in front of him, he could assess his life with greater fortitude. Instead of reacting to pain, he was creating fulfilment. Real pleasure.

It took Jay a handful of times before he got to where he wanted to be. We had to tinker with his goal to make it work for him. Given the potential for relapse, we also had to devise a reliable plan to pick himself back up again.

For the the final instalment (3/3), read HERE.