Friday, August 27, 2010

“Stress Happens”

(This blog is second in a three-part series, “Time Takes Time”)

There’s a lot of research into addiction happening these days. I listened to a lecture recently where the doctor talked about the medical community’s current understanding of our illness. He broke it down into simple terms: addiction is a brain disease that affects a very specific part of the brain. It isn’t the part of the brain that handles our conscious thoughts, or our moral reasoning, but our instincts. Our actual survival instinct has been hijacked, distorted.

Our brains have become convinced that our survival is dependent on putting in whatever it is we’re addicted to. That’s why cravings are so fierce for those of us who suffer from the disease: our brain is telling our body that we won’t survive if we don’t put in. And the trigger for this reaction isn’t trauma, it’s stress. Yes, many of us who suffered trauma learned to cope with it by getting loaded. But the medical community says that it isn’t the trauma itself that’s the issue, it’s the stress caused by the trauma.

In meetings, you’ll hear people talk about how we did what we had to do to survive. This is literally true. The horrors some of us experienced were so untenable that we couldn’t handle them; we got loaded because it was the only way we could find to cope. We didn’t have any skills for dealing with what we had been through. This is especially true for those of us abused as children. The trauma of abuse is one of the biggest stressors a human being can experience. For some, it is an experience so horrible that it cannot be experienced; it has to be repressed. But even when that happens, the experience is still there and the stress of it still exists.

Trauma isn’t the only thing that causes stress, of course. Losing a job. Getting a new job. Having difficulties in your marriage or relationship. A big test for school. Trying to get a promotion at work. Buying a house. Being homeless. Stress is the trigger for cravings, because those of us with this disease have taught our brains that the way to handle stress is by getting loaded. If our disease has progressed to the point where we are constantly getting loaded, it is because we have come to depend on our substances more and more for each and every little stress that life throws our way. The OA folks are very clued into this; they talk about being ‘stress-eaters’ and ‘compulsive eaters’.

The doctor closed out his lecture by saying that 12-step programs are fantastic lessons on how to deal with stress, and I can see his point. Looking at the steps from that perspective, I see it like this:

Lying is stressful, so we learn to practice honesty instead (Step One). Feeling that there is no way out, that we are trapped, we find hope that we might not be trapped after all (Step Two). Knowing that we can’t do it by ourselves and need help, and becomming willing to accept that help is a huge stress reliever. We find a way to have faith in those who can help us and in our higher power to give us help (Step Three).

Carrying resentments around, being consumed by our fears and the weight of the past, is an enormous stress. We've wrought all kinds of crazy havoc on our lives and the lives of those around us. So we practice courage and learn how to let go of all of it (Step Four). We share about the hard stuff of our lives with someone else who understands what we’ve been through. We get a huge amount of relief in learning that we are not alone (Step Five). Etc., etc.

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