Holidays and Addiction


Here is a friendly reminder of something you probably know well…

When I do a Treatment Summery for my clients who are getting ready to leave the program I will ask them to list some of the emotional, circumstantial, social, and environmental triggers they will face.  One of the most constant answers I hear from clients is that the holiday’s are particularly challenging.  This makes so much sense.

First of all the holidays are stressful on almost all of us. Sometimes the best and worst part of the holidays is that you get to see your family.  Broken family relationships can be a huge stress lead one to or keeping on in an addiction.

Second, holidays are often celebrated with some sort of party. For many a party is a chance to get drunk or high.  Going to a holiday party for these individuals can be on big trigger.  Seeing others drink or use drugs can be a huge trigger, even if the individual in recovery does not intend to use.

Third, the holidays can actually be a very sad time. For many the holidays are a reminder of the family or loved ones they lost to addiction or because of their own addiction.  The holidays are a painful reminder of what they have lost.  Often addicts and those in recovery are tempted to use in an effort to mask the pain of the holidays.

If you are in recovery I want to encourage you to stay safe over the Memorial Day weekend. Make a preplan of what you will do for a healthy pursuit of love, joy, and peace outside of your addiction.  If you love someone who struggles pleas keep in mind that the holidays can be very tough.  Give your loved one a call.  Invite them over.  Consider not serving alcohol at your family get together as to not be a trigger for those in recovery.  Finally pray.  Pray for those for whom the holidays are a great challenge.

We would love to hear from you!  What are some healthy ways you handle the stress of holidays?  Leave a comment in the, “Reply,” section below.  Have a safe and Happy Memorial day.


Addiction and the Brain


Addiction and the Brain

Dopamine is our brain’s natural fell good chemical.  We get a normal dose of dopamine when we do things that are pleasurable such as eating, playing, talking with friends, and making love.  When we use drugs, gamble, and binge eat, or view pornography we get an inordinate amount of dopamine.

When we use drugs or act out compulsive behaviors our brain remembers the circumstances surrounding the powerful rush of dopamine. The people we were with, the places we were and the things surrounding the compulsive behavior all get wrapped up and filed away together by our brains.   The next time our brains are reminded of the people, places, and things surrounding our compulsive behaviors our brain also remembers the powerful rush of dopamine.  Our brain then begins to say, “Go get that dopamine!”

Have you ever went to a movie and as you walked in the door you were assaulted with the smell of popcorn and immediately were thirsty for an ice cold Coke? The reason this happened is you have enjoyed a coke with popcorn before.  Your brain recorded the pleasurable event as a memory.  When the memory of the popcorn was triggered by the smell, the memory of the coke also fired.  Your brain immediately began saying, “Let’s do that again!” The same thing happens surrounding our compulsive behaviors leading us back to our addictions.

Now that we understand in part how our brains work in addiction, we understand more than ever the importance of avoiding triggers.  A great deal of recovery focuses on this vital step.

Often triggers are placed into three categories People, Places, and Things. A fourth more abstract category is also necessary.  I simply call this category, “Feelings”.  In the, “Feelings” category I place harder to define triggers like hunger, boredom, anger, anxiety, and depression.

Here is what’s going on in our brains during compulsive behaviors and or drug use:

#1. Pleasurable activities stimulate the VTA to make a normal amount of dopamine (Our brains natural pleasure, or feel good chemical).  Binge eating, Drug use, Gambling, Pornography, and other Compulsive behaviors produce extreme levels of Dopamine.

#2. The Nucleus Accumbens (Ventral Straiatum), pleasure center of the brain created to feel pleasure within normal ranges feels extreme amounts of pleasure when abused.  Excessive abuse causes, “Excitotoxicity” (Nerve cell damage from overactive receptors).

#3. Serotonin and GABA (Your body’s natural calming ability) are decreased.

#4.   Hippocampus: Remembers the details and context of our memories, the who, what, when, where, why, and how.”

#5. Amygdala: Connects emotions to memories.  The stronger the emotion (Good or bad) tied to the memory the more vivid it will be.  Also reinforces good memories and says, “Let’s do that again!”

#6. Locus Ceruleus: Alarm center of the Brain. Responds to Stress or Danger.  Tells the body to have a physical reaction if it does not get the dopamine rush.   (Believes we need the drug like we need food, water, air)

Matt Bulkley from states, “When one uses drugs like cocaine, these pathways are tricked into releasing uncommonly high levels of dopamine in our brain without us having to do anything for it. The reaction of these pathways to viewing porn is exactly the same. These ‘pleasure’ pathways become permanent as the porn addict continues to go back to the activity – watching sexually explicit images – to experience the release of dopamine.”


On June 28 2012 stated, “The odd thing about chronic pornography users is that they generally began using porn as a result of the pleasure it brought them (dopamine’s role as discussed above). With continued use however, pleasure diminishes. The trap of pornography is that pleasure becomes an elusive prize. The more the user searches for pleasure, the less he/she finds it. Here’s why:

The repeated high doses of the “chemical bath” associated with orgasm result in the brain’s inability to process and enjoy those chemicals at the same level it so desperately craves. What was once like a jolt of electricity surging through the central nervous system is reduced to a point it is no longer satisfying. Addicts often report symptoms of depression, relational problems, and a general sense of the joy of life having been lost. Why? Because the natural balance and function of the brain’s neurochemicals have been replaced by frantic search for another “fix.”

Some refer to sex addiction as the ultimate attention deficit disorder (ADD). Like ADD, the addict is continually scanning and searching for a new and novel experience. One way this search for new and novel experience plays out in the lives of users is that their search leads them to web sites and areas that they would normally have no interest in. For example, some who consider themselves straight and traditional in their sexual preferences will find themselves looking at gay porn or sado/masochistic websites in an effort to discover something new. It is the brain’s search for novelty, and for a chemical fix that leads the person to such sites. This, coupled with the fact that the high resolution video often available in today’s Internet porn is more graphic and more violent than what was available even a few years ago, leads the user deeper and deeper into the trap of seeking a novel experience. The overall result is like the preverbal “carrot on a stick.” The satisfaction one seeks is always just out of reach and so the efforts to capture the experience continue on and on.”

I’m reminded of the age old story of Satan in the garden tempting Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. The ancient serpent promised the first man and woman that they would be like God. He sold them the lie that there is something far greater for your life if you just partake of this forbidden fruit. For Adam and Eve of course the deception distracted them from a healthy pursuit of love, joy, and peace. They became discouraged, and dominated by their sin which lead down a path of destruction.

The same is true for us today. When we believe the lie that there is greater love, or joy, or peace in our addictions or compulsive behaviors the deception distracts us from a healthy pursuit of love, joy, and peace. We become discouraged as the high is never enough; we can never replicate that original euphoria. Our behavior begins to dominate more and more of our lives until we are ultimately destroyed. These are 5 D’s of Addiction.

Finding Freedom from STRESS -The 20/80 Rule


Saturday afternoon I came home from a motorcycle ride to find that the wall in my bedroom was moldy. Upon further inspection I realized that the plumbing in the wall was leaking.  Already tired from a long day of riding with some friends I began working on the problem.  I cut out the moldy drywall to discover the problem was much worse than I had originally thought.  Mold had grown quite a way up the wall behind the shower in the adjoining room.  After tearing out quite a bit of my drywall, and spraying down the mold behind the shower with bleach water I headed to the hardware store to purchase the supplies I needed to fix the plumbing.  The first store I went to didn’t have the parts I needed so I headed across town to the hardware store only to find that it had closed just 40 minutes earlier.

That was Saturday. Saturday night my wife and I slept out on the couch (We have a large sectional).  Sunday we went to church then went to celebrate mother’s day in Chicago with our mom’s.  Last night we again slept out on the couch.  It is now Monday morning and I am back to work.   Any guesses as to what I will be doing when I get home from work today?

This could have ruined my day. In fact this could have ruined a whole week.  This is a big mess that put us out of our room and will end up being a costly repair.  Instead I chose to focus on the positive.  I’m so thankful we have a second shower we can use until I get this one fixed.  I’m grateful we can sleep in the living room and don’t have to get a hotel.  I’m grateful I have the ability to fix the plumbing and don’t have to pay someone.  This was not a fun experience and I hope I never have to do this again but I’m not going to let this ruin my day.

James said, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness.  And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” (James 1:2-4 ESV).

You have heard it said before, “Life is 20% what happens to you and 80% how you handle it.” I’m reminded of a story of Ed and Fred who lived in the same neighborhood, worked at the same firm, and even had the same number of kids.  On the way to work one day both men got a flat tire.  It took them both about the same amount of time to change the tires and they both arrived to work just 10 minutes late.

At lunch a co-worker asked Ed how his day was going. Ed explained in no uncertain terms just how poorly his day had gone.  He went on and on about the pot hole in the road, and about getting his cloths dirty, about being late, and about how much it is going to cost him to replace the blown tire.  The flat tire had ruined his entire day.

The co-worker turned to Fred and asked him how his day was going. Fred explained that he too had hit a pot hole and had gotten a flat tire.  He explained that he too had gotten dirty changing the tire and that the incident had made him late for work.  Fred went on to say how thankful he was that he was able to pull off the road in a safe area to fix his tire.  He also said he was so thankful it had not been raining.  Fred told his co-worker that he had learned a few valuable lessons.  He said, “From now on I’m going to bring  a can of fix a flat with me in my car and I’m also going to start leaving work 10 minutes earlier just in case this happens again.”  Fred didn’t let the flat tire ruin the rest of his day.

There are many things that lead us to or keep us in addiction or compulsive behaviors. Many of life’s challenges keep us down and threaten to ruin our day.  Don’t let it.  Remember the 20/80 rule.  You have the power to choose what kind of day you will have.  Be like Fred.  He had a rough day but he chose to, “Count it all joy,” and he didn’t let it ruin his day.