Addiction 2.0

We are living in interesting and paradoxical times. The internet and smartphones, hailed as inventions that would save us tons of time and free us to do the things we most want to do, have in many cases done the opposite. So many of us are wasting time checking things we don’t really need to check, reading things that don’t have relevance in our lives, and viewing things that in the end only upset, distract or frustrate us.

It’s not exaggeration to call it addiction. My daughter recently asked me to take her phone away so she could focus on her homework. She gets hundreds of social media messages per day. Along with appreciating her wisdom to know when enough is enough, I was touched by her struggle to manage her phone.

Phone, internet and online porn addiction are among the plagues of these smart technologies. These devices aren’t inherently bad or harmful, but they tap directly into the vulnerability of the mind and nervous system. So don’t blame yourself if you struggle. Recognize this vulnerability is simply part of how our species has evolved over the millennia.

Briefly, our brains have evolved to be very good at certain adaptations. One is making associations, or learning new things. From childhood on, we are quick to learn that ice is cold, the sun is warm, and blankets are soft. We easily associate one thing, blanket, with another, soft. This ability to associate one thing with another has enabled our species to solve countless problems and invent things like antibiotics, airplanes and computers. Decades later, smartphone in hand, we soon learn that something uncomfortable, like boredom, is quickly removed by checking Facebook (again). It doesn’t take long for the brain to cement this association, and whenever boredom happens, the mind sends us a message: “Check Facebook.” It brings a momentary relief of boredom, and gives us a little hit of pleasure, and dopamine in the brain.

This becomes an addictive paradigm very quickly. Discomfort (boredom) + smartphone/Facebook = relief.

When the device brings the brain to content that’s even more charged, like pornography is for many people, the discomfort-relief pattern is intensified exponentially. The neurochemicals released by viewing porn are often way more dramatic and addictive than your average Facebook post about so-and-so’s new apartment.

Very intelligent, skillful, competent people can find this addictive discomfort-relief pattern remarkably difficult to free themselves from. They use all their willpower and determination to fight the pattern, and feel humiliated and foolish when they can’t keep their vow and stop the behavior. They begin to think something is really wrong with them. It isn’t. This pattern just proves that they’re all too human.

From one view, they’re using the wrong tools to try to fix the problem. They’re using willpower and determination, which work great for some things, but aren’t the most effective and relevant for addictive patterns.

What works? Learning new tools and skills. Here are a few examples:

-Mindfulness training. Meditative skills help us build the capacity of observing thoughts, urges and feelings, without acting on them. Mindfulness has been shown through research to quiet the emotionally-reactive parts of the brain, and strengthen the calm, reasonable, observing parts.

-Committing to lifestyle changes. Deleting phone apps. Turning off the phone or leaving it in another room at key moments. Examining daily behavior patterns, like immediately looking at the electronic device first thing in the morning, are some of the small but important incremental steps to “detox” from habitual and addictive patterns with smart technologies.

-Asking for help. One of the biggest mistakes is trying to overcome the power of addictive brain responses on one’s own. It is much more powerful than any of us. It’s like trying to stop an ocean wave from hitting the shore. We can, however, learn to sidestep the wave, avoid the beach, stay out of the water- with the help of trusted advisors and other supports. This often involves getting support to commit to other strategic changes, like changing aspects of access to content on the device, for example.

-Breaking out of isolation. Talking to a counselor, trusted friend or life partner is often the beginning of a new, healthier pattern. Staying in isolation reinforces the shame cycle of trying to stop, failing, shame and secrecy about the struggle.

-Learning from the years of accumulated wisdom of the addiction recovery community, including AA, NA, OA, SLAA, Smart Recovery, and other groups.

-A personal retreat or intensive. Time set aside to focus on getting support with the challenges you are facing can be a powerful step toward interrupting the habitual momentum and creating new patterns of response. Especially with addictive or habitual patterns, stepping out of one’s routine and surroundings can be a crucial part of getting traction with making change. Retreats can include intensive counseling, skills training, and support, to create a new foundation of knowledge, skills and habits. Many of the addictive patterns people commonly struggle with begin to ease after a few days away from them. The mind patterns of craving and habit begin to fade, and new habits gain momentum. When instruction in meditation, time for relaxation, and spending a few days in an inspiring setting are part of the retreat experience, the power of healing and new intention can multiply.

As a therapist, I’ve found guiding and supporting people through the thorny work of addiction recovery and lifestyle change among the most rewarding and enjoyable aspects of my work. I always admire the courage of the people who undertake these challenges. Making these changes is equally rewarding for my clients. The first step is making the commitment to taking a new action, like calling for an appointment.